From the June 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 6)

Conflict in the Middle East

Israel: Shifting to the Far Right

Elisa Ben-Rafael, World Press Review correspondent, Jerusalem, Israel

Effie Etiam
The new face of Israeli politics: Former general, and new leader of the far-right National Religious Party, Effie Eitam in Jerusalem, April 8, 2002 (Photo: AFP). 
The week before U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s April visit to the Middle East saw a series of significant changes on the Israeli political scene with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to add three right-wing ministers—two from the National Religious Party (NRP) and one from the Gesher (Bridge) Party—to his government.

His decision not only violated the sacrosanct principle that “during a war we don’t make politics”; it also created a right-wing majority that opposes peace negotiations with the Palestinians, virtually neutralizes the Labor Party’s role, and paves the way for the return of the other ultra-right-wing bloc, National Unity-Israel Beiteinu, founded by the late Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, who was assassinated by Palestinian gunmen on Oct. 17, 2001.

The move prompted a strong and often negative response in the press, violating another time-honored Israeli principle: not to criticize the government during a war. The prime focus of the criticism was Effi Eitam, who now becomes head of the NRP and Minister without Portfolio, as well as a full voting member of the national security cabinet. Eitam was the army’s highest-ranking combat officer of religious background. A controversial and charismatic figure, Eitam faced military charges when he gave the soldiers in his command the illegal order to “break the arms and legs of the Palestinians” during the first Intifada (1987-92).

More recently, he was quoted by Ari Shavit in an interview in Ha’aretz (March 22) as saying: “First, get rid of this leadership [Yasser Arafat]. Second, enter Area A [under full Palestinian control] and uproot the military terrorist capability. Third, make it clear that there will be no foreign sovereignty west of the Jordan River. I am not sure this is the time to organize what will happen east of the Jordan. But as for the area west of the Jordan, we have to state that no sovereignty will be established there other than that of Israel.”

Writing in The Jerusalem Post (April 8), Laurie Copans reported, “Eitam speaks unabashedly of his controversial dream: ‘One day, the more than 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will move to Jordan.’ ”

According to a report by Nehama Duek in Yediot Aharonot (April 8), the day the Knesset approved Eitam’s appointment, Yitzhak Ben-Aharon—at 96 a founder and a former leader of the Labor Party—sent a fiery letter to the party’s secretary-general in which he wrote: “I was horrified to hear that you intend to remain in the government even if Israel’s Jörg Haider joins. As you will recall, the addition of Haider to the Austrian government led to a crisis between us and Austria.”

In an April 8 news report in Ma’ariv, Ron Levin wrote that despite calls for the Labor Party to quit the government, its ministers argued against doing so now. Labor’s current leader, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, was quoted as saying: “...we are fighting a justified battle. It is all right to leave the government, but not when the nation is at war.” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres stated that the time to leave the coalition is “after the end of the operations and at the start of the negotiations.” He added that “the government’s arteries are clogged, and the time is coming for the party to make a big decision regarding its future.”

The only positive commentary on Eitam’s appointment came from the NRP party organ, Hatzofeh. In an April 8 article by Moti Zeft—accompanied by a photograph of Eitam giving the salute of the banned ultra-nationalist, anti-Arab Kach Party—Eitam claimed to oppose the transfer of either Jews or Arabs, adding: “Arabs will never have political rule in the country—not sovereignty, not an army, not any part or grain or alleyway of the Land of Israel.”

liberal, Tel Aviv
The Jerusalem Post
conservative, English-language
Yediot Aharonot
centrist, Tel Aviv
centrist, Tel Aviv
right-wing, religious, Tel Aviv
Aluf Ben, writing in Ha’aretz (April 8), looked at the long-term effects of Sharon’s actions, commenting: “He is in no hurry to commit political suicide and agree to the Saudi initiative, with its call for a return to the 1967 borders. If the Americans do decide to go for a political initiative based on the Saudi plan, he will have a real confrontation on his hands. To prepare for such a move, Sharon will today bring Effi Eitam, David Levy [the head of Gesher], and [the head of Israel Beiteinu] Avigdor Lieberman into the coalition.”

At the end of his first week as a government minister, Eitam, in an interview with Yediot Aharonot’s Mordechai Galit (April 12) said: “I am worthy to be minister of defense,” and “Arafat doesn’t deserve to live.” With these words, Eitam has confirmed the nation’s deepest fears and validated the widespread trepidation about his appointment.

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