Beilin blasts Sharons settlement policy in S.F. speech

Yossi Beilin holds no position in the current Israeli government, but if he's earned himself a title, it could be this: Freelance Critic of Ariel Sharon.

The justice minister in Ehud Barak's government, Beilin has been engaged in a sort of solo diplomacy as of late, meeting openly with Palestinians when the official party line is not to talk to them until the violence stops.

In a melancholy voice, the former Labor Knesset member delivered the keynote address at the seventh annual "Guardian of Democracy" dinner of the local chapter of the New Israel Fund at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel on May 24.

Beilin criticized Sharon's refusal to halt any settlement expansion, despite the conclusions of the recently released Mitchell report.

He said the answers to why the Oslo accords have failed can be found in the report, which contains the conclusions of an international fact-finding committee that tried to answer that question precisely.

"It's 31 pages of poetry; it's objective, balanced, wise and warm."

And it should be required reading for Israelis and American Jews alike, he believes.

As if grasping for something positive to say about the Middle East, Beilin recalled that almost a year ago, Israel withdrew its troops from Lebanon.

"We didn't have a partner or an agreement then. And we have not had one Katyusha [rocket] in all that time." The kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah several months ago was a tragedy, he said, but even so, that loss cannot compare to the 1,050 soldiers who died in Lebanon.

Beilin repeatedly invoked the metaphor "a thin layer of ice," suggesting that any progress toward peace has always been fragile and capable of being shattered at any moment.

"Five years of Oslo ended in May of 1999 with no permanent agreement, with an agreement not implemented on either side. The GNP of the Palestinians went down 20 percent. We did not put an end to the settlements."

But he also blamed the Palestinians. "They did not put an end to incitement."

In Beilin's estimation, an agreement had been very close, and if early elections had not been called in Israel, it would have been reached on even the most difficult issues, including the question of refugees. Beilin said his Palestinian counterpart, Nabil Sha'ath, felt the same way.

Citing a recent column in the New York Times by Thomas L. Friedman, Beilin said, "Friedman suggests that [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat is not a partner.

"I cannot do it. I don't have a better partner. There is no better solution. This isn't a beauty contest. He is the leader of the Palestinian people whether we like it or not."

Beilin spoke of an urgency to reach a final settlement because demographically speaking, it is only a matter of time before the number of Arabs west of the Jordan River will outnumber the Jews. "If we want a future for us and our kids, we must draw a border before it's too late," he said.

Beilin ended his talk by relaying the story of his visit to the United States in August 1998 with Barak, when the former prime minister was head of the opposition Labor Party. Jordan's King Hussein was in the late stages of his cancer treatments at the Mayo clinic and had requested a meeting. The men flew to Minnesota to see the ailing monarch.

"He asked us whether it would be possible to return to Nov. 3," said Beilin. At first, they didn't know what the king was talking about. Then he told them: It was before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995.

"We had no answers," Beilin said. "But we looked at each other and knew it was our last meeting with this king. 'Yes, yes, we will return to it,' we told him."

Later, Beilin said, he and Barak asked each other whether they had given the king the right answer.

"We tried. We did a lot to return, but what it led to was this crisis."

He concluded on an upbeat, if not old, note: "Let us not give up. We will return to the 3rd of November."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."