Why Does the Leopard Hide his Spots?

Above: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (left) and his Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listen to the Israeli national anthem after the Likud party meeting in Tel Aviv early November 29, 2002. Netanyahu publicly conceded defeat to Ariel Sharon in the Likud party leadership vote on Thursday and said he would work with the prime minister towards achieving victory in Israel’s January general election. Slogan in the background reads Likud. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen. (original Reuters caption)

I loath Binyamin Netanyahu, and therefore I hoped that he would be elected leader of the Likud. I am sorry that Sharon won the primary election instead.

How’s that? After all, Netanyahu presented himself as a man of the extreme right and demanded to “expel” (the code-word for “kill”) Yasser Arafat. He is ready to fight to the last drop of (our) blood against the creation of a Palestinian state. Unlike Sharon, who says that he is ready to accept a Palestinian state and does not talk anymore about expelling Arafat.

So why did I prefer Netanyahu?

Because Netanyahu is an unprincipled politician, ready to change his positions any time. He reminds me of Groucho Marx, who once declared: “These are my views. If you don’t like them, I have others, too.” He could easily exchange his rightist slogan for leftist ones.

Sharon is very different: he has a rigid outlook, which he has not changed for decades. He resembles an IDF bulldozer in Jenin, destroying walls on his way and demolishing houses on top of their inhabitants. His aim in life is to destroy the Palestinian entity and imprison the Palestinians in isolated enclaves, until the time is ripe for their expulsion from the country altogether. Nowadays he hides his unwavering attachment to this plan behind the mask of a benevolent, moderate grandfather, who has settled down and wants nothing more than to crown his career by making peace.

I prefer at the head of the Likud an unprincipled politician to a disguised true believer. He would have been easier for Mitzna to defeat.

In the competition for the Likud leadership, Netanyahu was a sheep in wolf’s clothing, while Sharon was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Likud members preferred the clothing of the sheep to that of the wolf. And that is significant.

Netanyahu did not understand that the mood of the Likud members has changed. He made a big mistake - one of many - when he decided, in the middle of the campaign, to adopt ultra- right positions, demanding Arafat’s expulsion and coming out against a Palestinian state. It appears that most of the Likud members do not believe anymore that that is practical - a conclusion confirmed the next day by a public opinion poll that showed that half of the Likud members accept a Palestinian state and agree to evacuate settlements.

Sharon, on the other hand, knows how to read maps. He pretends to accept a Palestinian state and to make “concessions that hurt”. This, of course, is a mere make-believe. He made his acceptance of the Palestinian state dependent on so many impossible “ifs” that it has been emptied of any content. Sharon remains the same Sharon and will never be anything but the same Sharon. The leopard will not change his spots*, but he understands that he has to hide them. To the trusting public he presented himself as a moderate, as against the extreme Netanyahu. And, wonder of wonders, the Likud, the party of the extreme right, preferred the candidate posing as a moderate to the candidate posing as an extremist.

This is not the only miracle: a few days before, something very similar happened in the Labor party, when Binjamin Ben-Eliezer was trounced by Amram Mitzna.

There is some similarity between the two Binyamins: Ben-Eliezer, like Netanyahu, is a man without principles, who is ready to change his views like socks. Mitzna, on the other side, is a man of clear principles.

Mitzna is a declared dove. As against the right-wing line of Ben-Eliezer, he presents to the voters a clear, left-wing alternative: negotiations with Arafat, evacuation of most settlements, immediate withdrawal from the whole Gaza strip, compromise over Jerusalem, a Palestinian state. Yet by an overwhelming majority, the Labor party voters chose him over Ben-Eliezer.

Let there be no mistake: Mitzna is not a Gush Shalom member. Some of his slogans are anathema to me. But he is firmly located on the left of the political arena. If one does not grasp the significance of his election as Labor leader, one does not understand what’s happening under the surface of Israeli society.

One miracle can be accidental. Two testify to a tendency. If in both the big parties - Likud and Labor - the candidates with the more “leftist” program defeats the candidates with a more “rightist” one, it proves that new public currents are at work.

One may add the happenings in the National Religious party. Once upon a time, this was a very moderate party. In the 50s, when the moderate Moshe Sharett was struggling against the extremist line of David Ben-Gurion, it generally supported Sharett. Since then it has - like almost the whole religious camp - moved steadily to the extreme right. A year ago it crowned as its leader Effi Eytam, compared to whom Haider and Le Pen look like bleeding-heart liberals.

Yet lo and behold: this week, when choosing its candidates for the Knesset elections, it turned against its new leader and filled the most coveted spots on the list with people who are (comparatively) more moderate.

If one puts all these facts together, what do they say? They say that the whole system is slowly moving to the left. The public is fed up with the war, the unceasing bloodshed, the economic crisis and the social breakdown. People want a solution. They are looking for compromise. They are ready to pay for it.

This gives Mitzna a chance. It will be very difficult for him to win, but it is definitely possible. And even if he does not succeed this time, he can do it the next time, which may be in a year or so. Provided, of course, he does not fall into the trap of a National Unity government.

Something is changing in the country. People are speaking again about things which had seemingly died: the Green Line, evacuation of (most) settlements, exchange of territory, speaking with Arafat, the Taba and Clinton plans, international monitors.

Ahead of us the tunnel is still dark. But after two years of anguish and despair, it seems that at least a small light has appeared at the end of the tunnel.

To quote Winston Churchill once more: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Uri Avnery is an Israeli journalist, writer, and peace activist who was one of the founders of Gush Shalom.