August 14, 1997
A No-Win Position
Labor Party leader Ehud Barak said that unless the opposition waited a decent interval before attacking Netanyahu politically, "it could be interpreted as if we were defending Arafat, even though this is not true -- we are defending the State of Israel."
Barak went out of his way to remind the public that neither he nor other opposition politicians were using the Mahane Yehuda attack to bash the government's policies -- which Netanyahu and the right wing had done with the bus bombings when Labor was in power.
But this was no magnanimous gesture on the part of the left; it was simple political common sense. After Mahane Yehuda, the Israeli public was not in the mood to hear that its prime minister had been too tough on the Palestinians. The Israeli public was hostile to Arafat. It blamed him entirely for the 15 deaths and 170 injuries in the marketplace, and it only wanted to hear about getting tougher on him.
So there have been no peace demonstrations in Israel. There is no anger at Netanyahu, as there was at Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres after the mass killings that took place on their watch. When terror seemed to be in remission, Netanyahu reaped the credit. When it resurfaced at Mahane Yehuda, he escaped the blame.
Israel's leading columnist, Nachum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot, gave this description of the political attitude among vendors at Mahane Yehuda: "When the left is in power, the left is to blame for terror.... Even when the right is in power, the left is to blame for terror. At Mahane Yehuda, the left is always to blame." Barnea quoted one vendor as saying: "Where is [Meretz leader] Yossi Sarid? I'll tear him apart." Mahane Yehuda is a stronghold of right-wing, anti-Arab sentiment, and after the bombing, the Israeli public as a whole was identifying more and more with this mentality.
The hawkish mood was reflected in the television news coverage. Veteran anchorman Haim Yavin, regularly derided as a closet dove by right-wingers, hardly tried to hide his antipathy toward Arafat. After broadcasting the Palestinian leader's promise to "fight terror as I always have in the past," Yavin huffed and said, "as he always has in the past," before going on to the next item.
Before the suicide attack, some U.S. officials, despairing at not being able to get Netanyahu to stop the construction at Har Homa and West Bank settlements, said that they were afraid Israel was going to have to learn the hard way that it couldn't strong-arm its way to peace. They expected that Palestinian violence would have a sobering, moderating effect on Israeli policy.
The Israeli opposition also believed that once terror returned, Israelis would see the error of Netanyahu's ways and demand that he change and become more conciliatory toward the Palestinians.
But the Mahane Yehuda bombing has had the opposite effect. It has goaded Israelis into a punitive mood, and Netanyahu's closure of the territories, his pledge to jam the Voice of Palestine radio station, his refusal to transfer Palestinian tax money to Arafat, and his stipulation that negotiations will not restart until Arafat lowers the boom on Hamas have all won wide support -- and not just from Netanyahu's supporters.
Former Tel Aviv Mayor Shlomo Lahat, head of the Council for Peace and Security, an organization of dovish ex-military and intelligence officers, wrote to Arafat: "We will support all actions by our government aimed at preventing terror -- even if this means stopping the peace process for a certain period of time." Lahat also said that if Arafat didn't put down terror, Israeli doves would no longer view him as a partner for peace.
Through all this, Meretz has remained consistent, demanding an end to settlement building and blaming such activity, in part, for the terror attack. The left-wing party sent a delegation to visit Arafat and blasted Netanyahu's post-Mahane Yehuda measures as a recipe for bringing down the Palestinian Authority and putting Hamas in its place. However, Meretz Knesset Member Amnon Rubinstein told Arafat, "A government led by Meretz also will not compromise in the slightest on the issue of terror and the war against it."
Yet while the public is in a militant mood toward the Palestinians, the Mahane Yehuda bombing has made it clear that Netanyahu's way is not a guarantee against terror. The Labor-led opposition made this point convincingly, criticizing the prime minister for boasting two days before the attack that he had turned the tide against Palestinian terror.
Barak's decision not to blame government policies for the attack appears to be politically wise. "It must be admitted that it has certainly been received with admiration by wide sectors of the public. A "responsible" opposition and "unity among the people" have always been close to the nationalistic heart," wrote Ha'aretz columnist Gideon Levy.
Yet the opposition is in a bind, and for reasons other than the current Israeli mood. Its criticism of Netanyahu can easily be met by the countercharge that during the Rabin-Peres regime, there were a number of bombings as bad and worse than the one that struck Mahane Yehuda.
There are fewer Israelis than ever who believe that the prime minister will make good on his campaign promise to bring peace with security. But the opposition does not have the credibility to make such a promise today either. If the Israeli public is looking for an alternative that can end the bloodshed, the left is not offering one -- perhaps because it has none to offer.