Speaker of Knesset predicts cold peace in visit here

Speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg is vexed by one of San Francisco's most pressing problems: the homeless.

"Everywhere you turn, there are homeless people," Burg said in an interview Saturday night at his hotel.

In fact, he would rather face all of Israel's pressing problems than trade places with either of the city's mayoral candidates.

"The devil you know is the devil you like," Burg said.

The former head of the Jewish Agency for Israel admits his country has its share of devils. None of which, he adds with a wry smile, requires the help of a professional exorcist.

"In Israel, everything is just a matter of time and patience."

Those two qualities were in short supply for the harried Speaker, who conducted a whirlwind "bridge-building" Bay Area tour last week. In San Francisco, Burg spoke at Congregation Beth Sholom, as well as with friends and Jewish leaders.

Burg offered up watery optimism about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and then tossed in a few caveats.

He predicted that the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue will result in a "cold peace," with an eventual Palestinian state.

"Now the parameters of the state aren't clear and it won't happen tomorrow, but it's a foregone conclusion. Most Israelis accept that, and say, 'Let's move on.'"

At the same time, he said, "Syria is the stumbling block. We are stuck as deep as possible in negotiations with Syria.

"The problem is that [Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Barak can make all the warm overtures in the world, and [Syria's President Hafez] Assad refuses to respond. He [Assad] just ain't moving. And that's really problematic because he wields a lot of power. If Assad falls in line, then Saudi Arabia and Lebanon will almost surely follow."

Burg ticked off four areas of "great difficulty" concerning the Israeli-Palestinian peace: Jerusalem, refugees, water and borders. Burg preaches patience on all four fronts.

"All I can say is that the problems are solvable. Nothing is unable to be negotiated, and every option is better than war." When pressed for more details, Burg demurred.

"I'm not going to offer any of my own solutions while negotiations are still going on. That's like offering different price tags for the same product. It would be undermining all the efforts we've been making."

However, the Labor Party stalwart had no problem in condemning former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's handling of the peace process.

"Netanyahu didn't have any interest in moving the process forward," Burg said of the Likud Party's former leader. "He wanted to stall as often as possible. If he were still the prime minister, the peace process would be in serious jeopardy.

"Even amidst all the charges of corruption, and even in the face of international isolation, Netanyahu refused to budge."

In fact, Burg asserts that Netanyahu's regime hurt the relationship between American Jews and Israel.

"The relationship between Israel and the diaspora is bad. Very bad. Maybe at an all-time low. I think it's partially a result of Netanyahu's blunders, and partially because the American Jewish community in particular is starting to disassociate themselves from Israel as the focal point of Jewish life," he said.

"This is a mistake."

He dismissed the mantra of "think globally, and act locally," as anathema to Israel's future. America's Jews, Burg contends, should not concentrate on building their own communities at the expense of Jews in need across the globe.

Burg conceded that Israel's well-publicized conflict over religious pluralism is a source of consternation, both inside and outside of the state.

"People are turned off by all the extremism in Israel," Burg said. "But those are just a small faction of the population. There's a small group that wants Israel to be ultra-Orthodox and a small group that wants the country to have no religious identity. Neither side will prevail because there's a vast majority, including myself, who occupy the middle ground."

The average Israeli, according to Burg, would like nothing more than to be left alone.

"After three or four wars, 15 years in the reserves, 53 percent income taxes and now with the peace process, the average Israeli doesn't want to debate about how Jewish Israel is going to be. All they want to do is come home, prop their feet up and relax."

Having said that, Burg did just that. Propping his tennis shoes on an ottoman, he sipped a cup of hot cider. He then declared that Israel's identity is not up for negotiation.

"As oxymoronic as it sounds, Israel is a Jewish democratic state. That means that although it is a democracy where everyone has political representation, it will endure as a country with Jewish customs, traditions and principles."

After speaking definitively about Israel's future, Burg prepared to leave for his flight. But he agreed to answer one more question.

Would he, as is widely believed, run for prime minister someday?

Burg's eyes grew wide. He ran his hands through his hair, and glanced at his watch.

"Not in the next two minutes," Burg laughed.