Release Date: May 22, 1999
Eric Margolis, c/o Editorial Department, The Toronto Sun
333 King St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5A 3X5
Fax: (416) 960-4803 -- Press Contact: Eric Margolis

Light At The End of The Mideast Tunnel?

by Eric Margolis

NEW YORK - The landslide victory by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak in last week's elections showed just how fed up Israelis were with slippery Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the little ayatollahs of the religious far right who supported him.

Barak's welcome victory also dramatically underlined public desire for revival of the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians, which Netanyahu had blocked or sabotaged over the past three years. Predictions that normally fractious Israelis would deliver a muddle electoral message were wrong. Israelis voters thundered they'd had enough of Netanyahu's politics of fear, which played to the basest instincts and most extreme elements of Israeli society.

Netanyahu, a Bill Clinton clone, is gone. In place of the plastic politician, a real man, Israel's most decorated soldier, Gen. Ehud Barak, something of an old-style Labor Party leader: a deeply untelegenic, piano-playing, highly cultured kibbutznik, as comfortable in a Vienna cafe as in the turret of a Merkava tank.

Barak's election, and rout of Netanyahu's Likud Party, ignited hope across the Mideast that the moribund peace process would be revived. The new Israeli leader vowed as much, though he cautioned there would be no compromise on sole Israeli rule over Jerusalem, no return to 1967 borders, no major reduction of settlements, and no substantial Arab military force on the West Bank.

Shimon Peres, former Labor Party leader, and architect of the Oslo Peace accords, dramatically summed up the situation facing by Israel: `There are 5 million Jews and 4 million Arabs between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Our choice is either Oslo…or Kosovo.' Peres meant was that if Israel didn't manage to conclude a fair deal with the Palestinians, there would be more violence and a resumption of the `intifada,' leading to calls within Israel for the mass expulsion of Palestinians into the deserts of neighboring Jordan.

This is unlikely to happen, but one wonders how much events in Kosovo subconsciously or consciously affected the thinking of Israeli voters. The expulsion of 800,000 or more Albanian from their ancestral homes by Serbs, who claimed Kosovo was given to them by God and was their holy ground, bears some similarities to events in Palestine during 1947-1949.

About 750,000 Palestinians, mostly framers and villagers, were expelled from their homes by Jewish regular and irregular forces, and driven to flight. Israeli extremist groups staged a few, selective massacres to incite fear and accelerate the exodus. Claims that Palestinians fled on orders of Arab governments were simply propaganda designed to mask Israeli ethnic cleansing, as the late Israeli historian, Simcha Flapan, demonstrated in his authoritative book, `The Birth of Israel.'

Five Arab states sent modest forces to stop expulsion of the Palestinians and, if possible, defeat the new Israeli state, or at least force it back to the original borders mandated by the UN. But the Arab `armies' proved even more inept and ineffective than the NATO coalition has in Kosovo, devoting more effort to bickering and intriguing among themselves than fighting Israelis. Israel emerged triumphant; the uprooted Palestinians became permanent refugees who roil the Mideast to this day.

Jews were fleeing Nazi oppression in the 1940's. Their struggle for a homeland cannot in any way be compared to the current sadistic atrocities being committed in Kosovo by Serb ethnic fascists. But the result was similar: an entire people displaced and left to rot in camps. Watching Kosovo, many Israelis must have uncomfortably recalled the dark secret that still haunts their nation's creation, and may have gained better understanding of the simmering r-age and anguish felt by the ever-homeless Palestinians.

Tellingly, Israel's govenrment and individual Israelis rushed to aid the pitiful Kosovar refugees. It was not just the terrifying deja vu of Jews being herded off to Nazi death camps. One senses some Israelis were also trying to make up for the wrongs of their own past by aiding the Palestinians of the Balkans. However, some Israeli rightists applauded Serb ethnic cleansing as a model for action on the West Bank.

While many Israelis opened their heart to the Kosovars, and Jewish groups across the United States demanded the weak-kneed Clinton take effective military action to stop Serb crimes, the Muslim world, ever ready to denounce Israel for persecuting fellow Muslims, sat back and did absolutely nothing to help the persecuted, mostly-Muslim Kosovars. Iran, self-proclaimed defender of Islam, even protested to NATO over slight damage to its Belgrade Embassy. The rest of the Muslim World carried on business as usual with Serbia.

The horror of Kosovo, and Shimon Peres's warning, should encourage Barak's new government and PLO to resume serious movement towards a final peace. Syria has openly signaled it is ready to talk to Barak, and let Israel out of the bloody quagmire in southern Lebanon. The Israeli public is ready, so are most of the Arabs - and even Iran's new, moderate, ayatollah- lite government. The alternative: escalation of Mideast nuclear, chemical, biowarfare arms race.

Politicians start most wars; soldiers end them. Gen. Barak now has a golden moment to seize the diplomatic initiative and become an Israeli DeGaulle by having the courage to press his people into the worrisome, distasteful, but absolutely essential, acceptance of a viable Palestinian state. Pray this window of opportunity is not slammed shut by the Arab or Jewish extremists who want to create another Kosovo.

[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]

Copyright © 1999 Eric Margolis - All Rights Reserved
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