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Terror Hardens the Israeli Right

November 22, 2002|Yossi Klein Halevi | Yossi Klein Halevi is the Israel correspondent for the New Republic and a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report.

JERUSALEM — The result of Thursday's terrorist atrocity will be felt when Israelis go to the polls on Jan. 28. Just as previous waves of Palestinian terrorism undermined Israeli trust in the Oslo peace process and helped elect right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996 and Ariel Sharon in 2001, so will the current violence further empower the right.

By contrast, in periods of relative quiet, the Israeli public has allowed its moderate instincts to prevail. In the 1999 elections, after three years of near-total cessation of terrorist attacks, in large part because of Netanyahu's hard-line policy, Israelis elected Labor leader Ehud Barak. Most Israelis had come to realize that the occupation was untenable and were prepared to make previously unthinkable compromises for peace.

As a result, when Barak became the first leader in history to offer shared sovereignty over his nation's capital city, the normally voluble Israeli public was largely subdued.

Then came Yasser Arafat's war. That war wasn't declared against a government of hard-liners but against the most peace-minded government in Israel's history. The domestic consequences were overwhelming. The Israeli peace camp, which had become mainstream in the 1990s, was reduced to a peripheral group of ideologues who refused to concede that empowering Arafat had been a disaster.

Inevitably, the centrist majority shifted right. In 1999, just before the terror war began, barely 30% of Israelis defined themselves as right-wing; today that number exceeds 50%.

Even now, though, that hard-line majority isn't ideologically right-wing. Israelis have become hawks on security, not territory.

In principle, most Israelis still support territorial concessions. In practice, almost no one here believes anymore that the Arab world would offer real peace in exchange for land.

Aside from a dogmatic minority, the Israeli public realized during the first intifada, in the late 1980s, that the occupation is both morally and politically untenable and that the Middle East conflict is a struggle between two legitimate national movements. It is precisely the failure of the Palestinian leadership to reach a reciprocal realization that has led to Israel's current despair.

Sharon's achievement has been to embody the new center-right sensibility. Though long identified with the West Bank settlement movement, Sharon rarely invokes settlements anymore. Instead, he has taken on his own party's hard-liners, led by Netanyahu, who oppose a Palestinian state.

Sharon now concedes that a Palestinian state is inevitable. Like the tough but pragmatic majority he now represents, he insists that the precondition for Palestinian independence is defeat of the terrorist infrastructure that now occupies Palestinian society.

At this point, there's almost nothing that the Labor Party, which disastrously bet on Arafat as its peace partner, can do to convince centrist voters that it deserves their trust. The left is in the untenable position of having promoted the premise that Israeli concessions would produce peace, then convinced the public to test that premise, only to have the experiment literally explode in our faces.

The election of super-dove Amram Mitzna as Labor leader in this week's party primaries only confirms Labor's decline as a serious electoral contender. Imagine the U.S. Democratic Party in 1972, after the overwhelming defeat of its liberal presidential candidate, George McGovern, concluding that McGovern lost because he wasn't nearly liberal enough and that it must choose as his successor, say, peace activist Eugene McCarthy. In electing Mitzna -- who is virtually the only Israeli politician these days who believes that Arafat remains a legitimate negotiating partner -- that's precisely what Labor has done.

Mitzna is in the unenviable position of having been endorsed by Arafat, who expressed delight in his nomination. Even worse, Mitzna's urging of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza without a negotiated settlement was cited by a Hamas spokesman as proof that terrorism is forcing Israelis to panic.

A majority of Israelis understand that withdrawal under terrorist fire would only encourage terrorism. Arafat's decision to launch his terrorist war was a result of the success of the fundamentalist Hezbollah in driving Israel out of Lebanon in 1998.

Terrorism cannot be appeased, only confronted. That realization has now emerged as the defining issue of this election.

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