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Ha'aretz, May 16, 1999

Choosing Barak, in spite of everything

By Gideon Levy

So how is a true left-winger, a supporter of peace and human rights, supposed to vote tomorrow? And how is the Arab citizen, for whom equality and justice are still elusive, supposed to behave?The decision is difficult, particularly as far as choosing a candidate for prime minister is concerned. If the choice before us in the Knesset elections is more varied and precise - Meretz, Hadash or one of the Arab lists, according to preference - in the prime ministerial elections there is no obvious candidate for whom a person on the left can vote from a position of deep identification or conviction. Netanyahu is Netanyahu, Yitzhak Mordechai the ex-Likudnik has no chance, Bishara has at the time of writing one foot out of the race and Barak has done virtually everything he can to be as disliked as possible on the left.

What remains? A blank slip. But a blank ballot is a luxury lacking any true value, childish and ridiculous. It has no political meaning and, in the end, may even leave Netanyahu in control. Arabs who choose to stay away from the polls tomorrow will be distancing themselves even further from the peace and equality that they deserve.

It's easy to understand those Arab citizens who are considering this option. A state that does its best to alienate them, along with a "Peace Camp Candidate" who boasts principally of his fighting military past and, like a burned child, distances himself from the heat of contact with the Arabs (excepting Jordan's King Abdullah), is undeserving their vote.

It is also easy to understand Jewish supporters of the Peace Camp who are considering a blank ballot given their "left-wing" candidate, a person who would perpetuate Ofrah and Beit El, who fudges his position (he did not even firmly protest the possible closing of the Orient House), whose rhetoric is security, whose record includes not a few military adventures (some of which were cruel and unnecessary), and who insists on a Jerusalem united "forever."

For those who believe that the road to peace passes through the 1967 borders, that Jerusalem is the city of two peoples, that the settlements are all a dangerous obstruction, that Israel must be a state of all its citizens and that at long last the time has come to right an historic injustice done to the conquered and bleeding Palestinian people, there is no suitable candidate for prime minister. But is a blank ballot a suitable answer? Not today, not now.

Israel today needs a civilian prime minister, sufficiently sure of his power to make painful concessions; one who has the ability to lead, who can initiate the courageous steps needed without fear, excepting the fear of further bloodshed in the region. A prime minister filled with a sense of justice, who will understand that the Palestinians are human beings just as he is, that their cup of suffering has long since overflowed, and that they are now entitled to at least a partial fulfillment of their rights in this divided land. A prime minister who will understand that this ceased long ago to be a zero-sum game, that not everything that the Palestinians (or the Arabs in general) gain Israel necessary loses, for whom peace does not mean separation but conciliation and reconciliation, and for whom human rights are as supreme a value as any other.

A prime minister who will understand that the need for security is not confined solely to Israelis - it is as essential for the Palestinian mother who sends her child out onto the street, and for the Palestinian farmer who wants to reach his piece of land. A prime minister who will internalize the fact that we have caused sufficient wrongs to our neighbors, that we can no longer destroy their houses, take over the remnants of their land, impose strange demands upon them and arrest their children without cause and without trial. A prime minister who will recognize that the existential need of the Palestinians for peace is as great, if not greater, than our own; that the majority have come to terms long ago with Israel's existence and now only wish for a little normalcy and peace in their hard everyday lives. A prime minister who will know that the Palestinians have already, painfully, given up part of their land, have had 400 of their villages and towns destroyed, have lived for 32 years under a vicious conquest, who are mostly penniless refugees, and who now must be given what remains for the surviving remnant.

Unfortunately, no such candidate for prime minister is to be found. Maybe his day will come, maybe he will grow up some time in a different Israel, perhaps only after another terrible bloodletting. Today, however, Israel is not sufficiently adult to produce him.

Ehud Barak certainly does not answer these longings. But now is the time to vote despite, not because. At his left hand, for all that, are Shimon Peres, Yossi Beilin, Shlomo Ben Ami and Haim Ramon - among the most enlightened of politicians; there are also grounds for hoping that the coalition that he will build will be based on Meretz and the other peace parties. It is even possible to hope that he will know how to channel his courage, of which he is so proud, into new directions, no less than Yitzhak Rabin did. Ehud Barak, therefore, is the least worst candidate. There is no choice but to vote for him.

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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