JERUSALEM — Is this a joke?
That's what the woman writing to the Jerusalem Post wanted to know.
She had just learned that the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon includes right-wing ultranationalist Rehavam Zeevi--who advocates expelling all Arabs from Israel--as the nation's minister of tourism.
Tourism, no less. Zeevi, who argues that his views appear less and less radical as an angry Israeli public moves to the right, will be in charge of attracting people to the country, rather than sending them out.
But Zeevi, known by the most improbable nickname of Gandhi, has more than package tours and hotel occupancies on his mind. He hopes to use his post to offer advice on his real love--security--to longtime army buddy Sharon.
Zeevi, a 74-year-old retired general, believes that he knows the way to halt the 5-month-old Palestinian uprising, the bloodiest violence here in years and the catalyst to Sharon's rise to power.
"We must find the [Palestinians'] weak, painful spots and press them until they come to us on all fours begging for a cease-fire," Zeevi said this week in an interview a few hours before the Cabinet was sworn in.
Recent governments, he says, have "castrated" the army. He is confident that will change. Israel, he declares, must dictate the terms of the battle, fight the Palestinians on their own turf and not shy away from capturing Palestinian leaders.
Blunt to the point of being coarse, Zeevi is a frequent protagonist in the infamous shouting matches that erupt regularly in Israel's parliament, or Knesset, where he has held a seat since 1988.
Zeevi once called then-President George Bush a liar and anti-Semite for pressuring Israel to stop settlement expansion in the West Bank. During a public ceremony four years ago, he called the U.S. ambassador a "Jew boy," apparently because the American official also was urging Israel to make concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians.
Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is a "viper" and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was "insane" for negotiating with him.
Zeevi's trademark is the pair of metal dog tags he wears that bear the names of four Israeli soldiers missing in action.
During the election campaign, Zeevi's name was invoked repeatedly as the reason to avoid Sharon like the plague: A government that would include Gandhi was a recipe for disaster and war, chanted the left--and many in the center as well.
Zeevi was first appointed a Cabinet minister in 1991 by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who did so over the objections of his own right-wing Likud Party.
Then, as now, Zeevi advocated what he calls the "transfer" of Palestinians from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip--lands he considers the biblically promised birthright of the Jewish people.
Two unlike peoples--Jews and Arabs--simply cannot live together, he said, citing Yugoslavia as the example of how impossible coexistence can be. The region that extends from the Jordan River west to the Mediterranean Sea is too small to divide, he argued. Palestinians have nearly two dozen other Arab countries they can go to, he said, while Jews only have this land.
Zeevi insists this doesn't mean forcing the Palestinians to move but rather creating the conditions that will make them realize it is in their best interest to leave.
Zeevi is the most extreme face in the overly large Cabinet, but he says he is more mainstream by the day, as the shootings continue and death toll climbs.
"Arafat is working overtime these days to convince everyone that Gandhi is right," he said.