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Israeli Despair Opens Door for Hard-Liner

June 30, 2002|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — He has been in the Israeli Cabinet for less than three months, but Effi Eitam says his influence is easy to see: Just look to the tanks rolling back into West Bank towns and villages.

What many regard as the final blow to the battered 1993 Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization is for Eitam moral vindication.

Until recently, the 50-year-old retired general, an Orthodox Jew, was regarded here as a charismatic but marginal figure, a far-right ideologue with messianic impulses. A career soldier and respected battlefield commander, he quit the army in 1999 because, he said, he understood that his political views and religious convictions made further promotion impossible.

But as Israel's security crisis has deepened, Eitam has moved from the fringe to the center of the political debate with his calls for the government to destroy the Palestinian Authority, expel its leaders and reoccupy the West Bank.

And Eitam has moved to the heart of political power.

Three months ago, he was named head of the National Religious Party, a Zionist Orthodox party whose base lies with the Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. From there, he catapulted into the government as a minister without portfolio--and into the prestigious security Cabinet, the small grouping of senior ministers who set defense policy with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Eitam says his mission has been to bring "moral clarity" to Israel's battle with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his administration, to fashion a response to the Palestinian leadership based on his belief that they are "coming from the darkest part of evil on Earth."

In the Cabinet, Eitam's has been a consistent voice urging an escalation of the conflict with the Palestinians. He has advocated the retaking of the entire West Bank and the arrest and trial of Arafat and senior Palestinian officials. He has warned that Israel's Arab minority is a "ticking bomb" threatening to destroy Israeli democracy.

His hard-line constituency had chafed at Sharon's unwillingness to follow Eitam's prescription for achieving military victory over the Palestinians. "Where is Effi?" graffiti taunted, an allusion to his perceived inability to be heard.

But a rising tide of Palestinian suicide bombings has moved Sharon--and most of the government--closer to Eitam's views.

The security Cabinet recently announced that Israel will reoccupy large swaths of the West Bank "until terror stops." Eitam quickly claimed credit for the decision.

"Sharon has understood that in the next year there is no other way to defend the state of Israel and its citizens without taking security control of all of the territories," Eitam told Nahum Barnea, a respected political analyst with the mass-circulation Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. "I convinced him."

Soon, Eitam said in the interview, Arafat will be banished to the Gaza Strip, where he can establish what Eitam called "Arafatistan" behind the security fence that Israel has built. Israel, he said, will retain control of the West Bank, captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War.

The mainstreaming of Eitam's hard-line views reflects the despair that Israelis feel after nearly two years of bloody battle with the Palestinians.

Eulogizing an Israeli woman and her 5-year-old granddaughter killed in a Jerusalem suicide attack this month, Eitam issued a near-biblical call for revenge that captured the sense among Israelis that they are living through the latest chapter in the ancient Jewish struggle for existence.

"I look up at you [Arabs] on the hilltop," Eitam said, "and I see your large houses and your closed shutters--we know that behind those shutters, you are now happy ... [but it is] the happiness of Philistines, the joy of the uncircumcised, the merriment of little people."

You "are experts of impurity, cursedness and evil," he said. "But we are the blessed." The Jews, he said, "have returned home for our rendezvous with the Lion of the World and the Lioness that is our Nation."

He warned: "And when we pounce on you, and it will happen--when we come with vengeance against your terrible evil, woe will be unto you--we will make a reckoning with you."

Eitam's critics on the left view him as one of the far right's most dangerous politicians. Yossi Sarid, leader of the Meretz Party, dubbed him a "false messiah," and others have likened him to the far-right French presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.

"That you have somebody like him in the government is a deep blemish on our society," said Rabbi Michael Melchior of the Meimad Party, a dovish Orthodox party. "I just totally disagree with him about what is Jewish morality, what are Jewish values."

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