Israeli journalist says security first may win the center votes

Twenty-five years ago, Herb Keinon, one of Israel’s top political journalists and a 20-year Jerusalem Post veteran, moved to Israel from Denver. The last five have been the hardest, due to terrorism, he told an audience at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael on Sunday, Dec. 11.

Keinon, who sympathizes with the Sharon government, covers the Israeli prime minister and foreign minister and has traveled with Ariel Sharon on trips abroad. Keinon himself frequently traverses the United States and Canada as a television and radio commentator and speaker on Israeli politics. He spoke on Israel’s political fate as Palestinian Authority elections loom and the country heads toward parliamentary elections in March.

The talk, which he gave at several Bay Area venues, was titled “Israel at the Crossroads, What Will Elections Bring?” It could have been called “Why Security is a Political Priority in Israel.”

A practiced, charismatic and compelling speaker, Keinon began his talk with personal anecdotes about enduring terrorist violence over the past five years. He described the fear gripping Israel and his family, the difficulty of raising children in this environment and the losses that have touched his life. His personal accounts were not intended to inspire sympathy, he said, but to give insight into the besieged Israeli mindset: The threat of terrorism has made security the top political issue on every Israeli’s mind and continues to shape and influence policy.

During elections, security will trump Israel’s other pressing economic, social and corruption issues. “Twenty percent of Israelis live below the poverty line. In most normal countries this would be a central election issue, but ours is not a normal country,” he said.

On a brighter note, Keinon spoke of the country’s resilience in the face of turmoil. Even under the constant threat of attack, a recent Israeli poll revealed that 85 percent of Israelis said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their lives.

According to Keinon, Israelis have changed the way they view the conflict. Instead of looking for a solution, the government is focused on managing the conflict, he said. Sharon has adopted a “security first” policy, using proactive strategies to reduce terrorist attacks. In the last two and a half years, targeted Palestinian assassinations, daily West Bank arrests and interrogations, and the erection of a security barrier have stopped 95 percent of attacks before they happen, said Keinon.

Keinon also discussed Sharon’s reasons for disengagement. Sharon saw Gaza as indefensible territory that hosted more than half of Israel’s terrorist attacks. More importantly, in Sharon’s eyes the relationship with the United States is the key to Israel’s survival, and disengagement would provide Israel diplomatic leverage on the world stage, Keinon said. Israel’s concession has brought the United States and Israel closer and appeased the European Union and the United Nations. In exchange, Israel has the political room to conduct aggressive defense tactics against Palestinian terrorists.

The human cost of disengagement has been unemployment, homelessness and the destruction of communities, but this is the price Israel must pay to defend itself, he added.

Keinon also touched on the recent political tumult in Israel. In March voters will have three major parties to choose from: Sharon’s former party, the right-wing Likud; the left-wing Labor Party that has been revitalized by Amir Peretz; and Sharon’s newly formed, centrist Kadima Party. Keinon predicted a victory for Kadima because, despite the corruption scandals surrounding Sharon, his security track record resonates with voters. However, a third party will water down the victory and make it harder for Sharon to build a new coalition, Keinon predicted. As for the upcoming Palestinian elections, Keinon estimated that Hamas would garner 20 to 30 percent of the vote.

Keinon concluded on a thought-provoking note. “Israel’s main problem is its policy of reacting to external factors. What does Israel want? We have never made up our minds and you can’t achieve what you can’t define.”

His San Rafael talk was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and congregations Kol Shofar and Rodef Sholom.