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The Return of Yossi Beilin the Statesman?

One of my political mentors, someone I worked with in and out of the government in Israel, and a friend, Yossi Beilin, announced yesterday that he was standing down as leader of the Meretz party and withdrawing from the party leadership election to be held in March.  Beilin explained that he would be supporting Haim Oron, known to everyone as Jumus, in the leadership race (against two other Meretz MKs: Ran Cohen and Zehava Gal’on).  

“The ideological closeness and friendship with Jumas [Oron] dictated that I not run against him.  I have had a principle for many years.  I will not run against a comrade in my political path,” said Beilin.  

Most of the commentary has pointed out that Beilin did not look to be in a strong position in the leadership race, had not captured the hearts of his new Meretz party colleagues, and was unlikely to increase the party’s Knesset representation.  Indeed his years as chair of Meretz have probably not been his most productive or brought out the best in Yossi Beilin.  Dealing with the day-to-day matters of party management was not his forte. Structurally too, Meretz during his leadership period found itself walking a fine political line as a responsible opposition (sometimes too responsible) that on more than one occasion found itself propping up a government of which it was not a part and with which it disagreed on most issues just in order to maintain the glimmer of hope for a peace process or to facilitate a unilateral (and as such, misguided) withdrawal from Gaza.  

There was very little time for Beilin, the daring statesman--brilliant, creative, and farsighted.  One used to frequently hear the refrain that “What Beilin is planning today, Israel will be doing in 5 to 10 years,” for too long that quotation has been gathering dust.  In his Foreign Ministry days Beilin led the belated effort to have Israel severe its close relationship with apartheid South Africa and pushed for the establishment of a governmental department to coordinate overseas development assistance.  Beilin is of course remembered for initiating the back-channel dialogue that was later adopted by Itzhak Rabin and became the Oslo Declaration of Principles, and for championing the withdrawal from Lebanon that was eventually embraced by Ehud Barak and implemented in 2000.  Other Beilin projects have not yet been realized to the detriment of the Israel he has spent all his life working for, and the region which he understands we need to be a part of.  These plans include the Beilin-Abu Mazen Agreement and The Geneva Initiative, both of which I had the honor to work with Yossi on, and are well worth revisiting.  Often forgotten is that Beilin has also intensely involved himself with the subject of Israel’s relationship with the Jewish diaspora and, prolific author that he is, Yossi even wrote a book on this subject, “His Brother’s Keeper.”  The now well-established Taglit or birthright program, so beloved to Jewish communities and the establishment, was originally the brainchild of guess who? YB.

Hopefully, the removal of constraints of party leadership will re-release the tireless thinker and unstoppable private statesman in Yossi Beilin.  Beilin himself stated in his resignation announcement that “I will now invest more than I have in the last four years in the peace process.  I have never hidden the fact that there is nothing more urgent in my eyes than grasping the opportunity for peace.  I now feel a particular sense of urgency.” In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Beilin pressed the need for a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, a move that may have been a harbinger of the kind of efforts Beilin will now pursue.

Much of the media commentary around Beilin’s resignation has, as expected, been less than flattering about Beilin’s political skills and future political prospects but has been balanced by a near universal appreciation of his diplomatic and visionary qualities.  Yossi Verter in Haaretz sums it up in terms more stark than I would use.

The Israel TV channel 10 lead political correspondent and political author Raviv Druker had this to say on his blog (Isra-blog)—here is the link for those of you who read Hebrew.

I want to write about Yossi Beilin, the person and the politician.  Not many people in the Knesset agree with his views, but you will not find one person (maybe Dalia Itzik) who does not value and respect him. Beilin is the only politician that received a ministry and closed it down…as it was superfluous to efficient government [the economics and planning ministry]…

In 1999 Beilin agreed to resign from the Knesset in order to allow an additional person from the Labor Knesset list to enter, except for Matan Vilnai no one else agreed to do this.....because that is Yossi Beilin.  A politician who has convinced an entire political system that his considerations are substantive ones, that what interests him is ideology and not sinecures…

[Beilin’s withdrawal from the leadership race] again proves that with him, intelligence manages to trump ego…this is the time for him to withdraw from the campaign and return to doing what he does better than any other politician—to influence the Israeli reality more than the vast majority of our ministers and sometimes more than our Prime Minister. (DL translation)

Raviv, I have nothing to add.  

As for Jumus, a colleague from the Geneva Initiative, a wonderful man and someone basically unknown in the US, more on him in a future post.  


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Daniel Levy


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