Friend or Foe? Is Fuad the Palestinians' Best Bet? Lawrence Joffe Profiles Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Current Affairs)

By Joffe, Lawrence | The Middle East, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Friend or Foe? Is Fuad the Palestinians' Best Bet? Lawrence Joffe Profiles Israeli Defence Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Current Affairs)


Joffe, Lawrence, The Middle East


An Israeli party leader called Fuad? And Labor at that? Bizarre though it may sound, on 26 December 2001, the bastion of Israel's Ashkenazi (European Jewish) establishment elected an Iraqi-born Jew as its new chairman. No Sephardi, or Oriental Jew, had ever won such a prize, in either Labor or Likud, during 53 years of Israel's existence.

The man who follows in the footsteps of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin is Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. Born in 1936 and named Fuad, he assumed the Hebrew moniker, Binyamin, after being smuggled into the fledgling State of Israel in 1950. So began a tale of triumph over adversity. First came life in the notoriously austere immigrant transit camps, the ma'abarot. Then followed a successful 28-year military career, during which he was wounded seven times. He entered the Knesset in 1984 and became Rabin's housing minister in 1992. Today he is deputy prime minister and defence minister.

Ben-Eliezer has done much to nurture his own mythology. "I am Fuad," he proclaimed after winning Labor's crown, "Fuad, who immigrated by myself at age 13 on foot to the land of Israel."

The truth, as ever, is considerably muddier. First of all, the election in December 2001 was in fact a run-off in selected Labor constituencies. Ben-Eliezer had narrowly lost the official party primary, on 4 September, to his sole rival, Avraham Burg. But Fuad's supporters alleged ballot-rigging by the Burg camp, notably in Arab and Druze constituencies; hence the controversial re-count.

Nor did Fuad's problems end there. One prominent Burg supporter, Yossi Beilin, called Ben-Eliezer an `illegitimate winner'. Moreover, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres appears loath to shift aside as Labor's number one man in the coalition government.

Others suggest that Ben-Eliezer is a mere caretaker. They say he won by default, after more substantial figures dropped out of the race -- like Beilin, Haim Ramon, Shlomo Ben-Ami, and that hardy perennial, Peres. In a year, say critics, he will be deposed in new leadership elections. Fuad has reached the pinnacle of his competence, they contend, and the only way is down.

As for Palestinians, and indeed Labor's own left wing, Fuad's victory did not augur well. Since becoming defence minister, in May 2001, he broke a long-standing taboo by using weapons like F-16 fighter aircraft, battlefield tanks and helicopter gunships against Palestinians. He amplified the Barak administration's policy of `targeted killings' -- what Palestinians and the rest of the world call simply assassination. And he authorised the temporary reoccupation of Palestinian towns, Tulkarm, Bethlehem and Jenin. Like Sharon, and to Peres's chagrin, he has dismissed Yasser Arafat as `irrelevant'.

In addition, Ben-Eliezer opposed the Taba peace talks of January 2001, while communications minister under Barak. To negotiate under fire, he charged, was "inappropriate and unethical, a loaded gun pointed at Israel." Later he told interviewers: "Terror has only one real answer -- terror." And he remains resolute about a `united Jerusalem' and the rights of settlers.

Even Fuad's military past is controversial. In 1995, it was alleged that troops under his command had mown down up to 400 Egyptian and Palestinian soldiers fleeing the Gaza Strip during the 1967 war. Allegedly Fuad's elite `Shaked' Sinai patrol killed several after they had surrendered -- a charge he rejects. However, there is no denying his role in spearheading the ruthless war on `terrorists' in Gaza in the early 1970s, at the behest of Ariel Sharon.

A DOVE IN HAWK'S FEATHERS?

And yet some detect another Fuad waiting to get out, a man who says he is willing to make painful compromises if needed. Supporters believe he can repair Labor's schisms, reach out to Arab nations, and forge a lasting peace with Palestinians.

The evidence is patchy, but it is there. Despite tough public pronouncements, Fuad has kept channels of communication open with Palestinian leaders, in particular, Jibril Rajoub, a head of Palestinian security. …

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