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Giving the Enemy Its Opening

July 14, 2002|FRIDA GHITIS | Frida Ghitis' latest book is "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

AMSTERDAM — There's nothing like a national threat to unite a country behind hard-liners. And there's nothing like a united country to cow moderate politicians into silence--even when popular extremists make destructive decisions. Such is the case in Israel today, where the wave of terror has united the bulk of the country behind Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's archconservative Likud Party, and moderate politicians trying to hold on to threads of power can think of no better strategy than playing dead.

The Israeli government has undertaken many self-destructive actions in recent months, but the two it came up with last week seem just plain stupid. One was a Cabinet vote to back an amendment to an existing land law that would ban Israeli Arabs from purchasing homes in some parts of Israel. The other was shutting down the office of leading Palestinian moderate Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al Quds University and the Palestinian Authority's highest-ranking official in Jerusalem.

The decision to target a man like Nusseibeh flies in the face of efforts to promote a different kind of Palestinian leadership. Nusseibeh has denounced the current Palestinian uprising, saying it is not a popular movement--a real intifada--but rather a "convulsion of violence." He has loudly and clearly called for an end to suicide bombings. He has taken the unpopular position that Palestinians must drop their demand that refugees be allowed to return to Israel proper. The Oxford- and Harvard-educated intellectual is the antithesis of everything Israelis fear in Palestinians, a man whose voice Israel should try to magnify instead of silence.

Nusseibeh was out of the country when Israel's public security minister, Uzi Landau, a hawkish member of Likud, ordered the closing of the university's administrative offices, including Nusseibeh's. According to Landau, by working for the Palestinian Authority within the boundaries of Jerusalem, Nusseibeh was undermining Israeli sovereignty in the city in violation of the Oslo accords.

The matter of Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem is particularly sensitive to Israelis. Landau used a politically charged term to describe the danger, saying Nusseibeh could be used as a "Trojan horse," with the university serving as an arm of the Palestinian Authority.

The Trojan horse metaphor has gained popularity in Israel lately. Moderate politicians who supported the 1993 Oslo peace process are accused also of having rolled in a dangerous gift from the enemy, as the Oslo accords helped create and arm Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Many in Israel believe the flawed peace process, undertaken by the Labor Party, sowed the seeds of today's disaster.

Reaction against the absurd decision to close Nusseibeh's office did not come, as it should have, from the top Labor officials holding positions of power in the Sharon Cabinet. Instead, it came from former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, a man viewed by many as a pariah for his role as a key player in the government of former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which outraged conservative Israelis with its far-reaching offers to Palestinians at the Camp David negotiations in early 2000 during the waning days of the Clinton administration.

Beilin, who last month challenged the Labor Party's ability to lead the Israeli left and announced the formation of a new political movement called Shahar, blasted the action at Al Quds, saying no Palestinian has taken more risks for peace than Nusseibeh. The sentiment was echoed by Yossi Sarid, head of the opposition party Meretz, who called the government's decision stupid.

The hobbling of Nusseibeh, though, seems positively brilliant next to the proposed land law, a shameful measure introduced by an extreme right-wing minister and approved by the Cabinet while most of its Labor ministers conveniently happened to be away, providing them with cover from the controversy.

The bill provides for the legalization of "Jews-only" towns, rural communities in which Israeli Arabs could not buy homes or even reside. With the Cabinet's endorsement, the bill now has a clear path to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, where it faces legal hurdles. The idea presents a serious challenge to the country's democracy, prompting Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to say his Labor Party would "fight with all its power against the racist decision," even if that were to mean quitting the government. But the Labor Party has been reluctant to raise its head in opposing Sharon's policies lately, and it remains to be seen whether it will have the courage of its convictions.

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