An Israeli's plea for peace


A reader called last week to complain that I'd quoted Avrum Burg in an article from Jerusalem: "He is the most out-of-touch Israeli politician you could have picked."

Doves are not popular in Israel these days. But Burg is in touch with the history of his people and, offensive as the idea is to many of them these days, he still believes there will one day be peace between his people and the Palestinians, and that there will be two states between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

Burg is speaker of the Knesset, Israel's parliament. His father, Yosef Burg, was the leader of the National Religious Party that served in government coalitions from the day the state of Israel was founded in 1948 and for the next four decades. The elder Burg was interior minister in the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982.

That war, commanded by Ariel Sharon - then defense minister, now prime minister - was the catalyst in the political awakening of Avrum Burg.

In 1983, at the age of 28, while serving in Lebanon, he became a peacenik. He helped to form a group, Soldiers Against Silence, and he has been very un-silent ever since. That year, he paid a price for his opposition to the war in Lebanon. He was injured by a grenade that was thrown at a group protesting the war. One Israeli died in that attack; eight others were injured.

Speaker of the Knesset may be the highest position Burg ever reaches in Israeli politics; he seems firmly committed to the idea of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he believes, missed a long-term possibility immediately after the Oslo peace accords by not establishing full authority over all the factions in the Palestinian community.

"Arafat got the authority but he compromised the oneness of his authority. Now there is the authority of the opposition in Fatah and the authority of the Islamists nobody controls," he says. "So the Israelis say, 'Listen, I'm a lousy businessman, but to pay twice for the same deal - once to Arafat's opposition in Fatah and once to the Islamists - forget it.'"

Arafat missed a long-term opportunity two years ago when Sharon, then a candidate for prime minister, decided to visit the Temple Mount, which is sacred to Jews, but where Jews are discouraged from visiting for religious and political reasons. The mount also holds Islam's Noble Sanctuary and the Al Aqsa mosque.

If Arafat had been smart, Burg says, he would have welcomed Sharon with open arms.

"He could have picked up the phone and said, 'Mr. Ariel Sharon, I happen to know you're coming to the Temple Mount. I'm coming to welcome you personally, with a red carpet. I'll bring you 10 Jews so that you'll have a minyan (the quorum required for a service). By this I express my commitment to pluralism, to freedom of expression, to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, et cetera.'"

Instead, the Palestinian uprising known as the Al Aqsa intifada begin. "And with this, Yasser Arafat lost the most important element in the process, the Israeli peace camp," Burg says.

The violence that has left more than 600 Israelis and 1,500 Palestinians dead killed Oslo's chances, he agrees.

"The Left in Israel woke up October 2000 and realized that there is no new Middle East," he says. "We cannot make peace with the Palestinians as the Canadians and the Americans. The Right woke up in Israel and elected Ariel Sharon: Mr. Security. But they realize there is no military solution. Now between no new Middle East and no military solution, Israel is a confused society. There's no concept, no program."

With Israel besieged by terrorism as it is, and retaliating with a vengeance, what's the point of trying to work out something between the two sides?

Time, Burg answers.

"Arafat's time is short," he says.

"What is in Israel's best interest?" he says. "That change in power will be done under conditions of reconciliation, because if it is under conditions of conflict, every candidate will say 'Vote for me because I killed more Israelis, vote for me because I'm more aggressive, more extreme.'

"But if the conditions will be of prosperity, future, hope, every candidate will say 'Vote for me because I bring you more peace, more personal pride.' So, the interest of Israel is to resume talks - even with Yasser Arafat - to change the environment so that when the change happens, it's in favor of Israel's interests rather than against it."

Burg abhors the effect that the last two years of violence has had on his people, the drift to the far right and the extremist views that have entered the national dialogue.

Transfer, for example: the notion that the best solution would be to move all of the Palestinians out of Gaza and the West Bank and push them across the river to Jordan.

"Transfer is still a contained notion that will never become a policy. I hate it," he said. "The issue of transfer touches much deeper strings in the history of the Jewish people than this individual or that individual. Transfer has something to do with the Holocaust and the Hasidic experience and touches too many moral strains, not yet awakened. The minute someone tries it, there will be an outcry."

One of the remarkable things about Burg is that he manages to keep a sense of humor in the face of all the hopelessness and pessimism around him.

Of Arafat he acknowledges, "Look, it's not just a used car, I wouldn't even buy a new car from that guy."

Of the extremists who advocate transfer of the Arabs, he noted a sign supporting the idea that said "No Arabs, No terror."

"This was replaced one day with a sign that said 'No Arabs, No Hummus.'"

Out of touch? Maybe, for the time being. But think of the future.

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