Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer, Israeli minister of trade, industry and labor, is the senior leader of the Labor Party’s hawkish wing, a tough-as-nails ex-general and currently the party’s grand old man. Born and raised in Iraq, he was a career soldier from 1954 until 1984, the first Israeli liaison to the South Lebanese Christian militias, military governor of the West Bank from 1978 to 81 and of the territories 1983-84. Retiring as a brigadier general, he entered politics in 1984 as a follower of Likud breakaway Ezer Weizman. He’s been a cabinet minister almost continuously since 1992, including a stint as Ariel Sharon’s first defense minister. Last week he gave a lengthy interview to Ariella Ringel-Hoffman in the Yediot Ahronot Friday supplement.
He’s 74, the oldest Knesset member, the oldest cabinet member, 26 years in Israeli politics, minister in seven governments including defense minister at the height of the second intifada. He’s long been considered the strongman of the Labor Party, confidante of party chairman Ehud Barak, close to Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres’s favorite traveling partner on overseas visits.
“And never,” he says, “has Israel been in as difficult situation as it is in today.” And never has he himself been “so worried, and yes, so pessimistic.” …
We’re not the ones maintaining a blockade. We’re blockaded, utterly isolated. We’re in a situation where the world is tired of us. They’re tired of hearing our explanations, of showing empathy for our troubles, even if they’re real troubles. Tired of understanding us. This business just isn’t working anymore. After 43 years, nobody wants to hear any more explanations about why this occupation is continuing and how we have nobody to talk to. Get to an agreement already. It’s true that we have a partner problem. That’s why I’ve been supporting the release of Marwan Barghouti for the last few years. He may be a murderer, but he’s a strong partner who can make an agreement with us and make it stick. If we don’t release him, then we’ve got to talk with the partners we’ve got. We can’t choose their leaders, and we can’t constantly whine about how they’re shooting at us, they’re arming against us, they’re threatening us.
He was in Doha, the capital of Qatar, at the end of May when the flotilla incident occurred, sitting on one of the major panels at an international economics conference. He watched on the big screens in the meeting room and out in the hallways as our soldiers rappelled down onto the Turkish ship, saw footage of the wounded and the dead. He heard the world condemning Israel, and he found himself in the position of having to speak for Israel before he could even find out firsthand what actually happened, having to explain why Israeli boats had to stop the ship on the high seas. Immediately afterward the Qataris assigned two or three bodyguards to reinforce his existing guard, and he was walking around surrounded by seven tough guys in white robes who accompanied him from camera to camera, until he was told in no uncertain terms that it would be a good thing if he would return to Israel.
There were economic delegations from all over the world. Everyone I spoke to was extremely polite, but the looks on their faces said it all. The next morning, when I went down to breakfast, there was a very senior representative of one of the Western delegations standing a few meters from me, between the tomatoes and the cucumber. “A gang of animals,” he said about us. The world has changed disks and we haven’t caught on yet. Netanyahu is eating the bitter fruits left by his predecessors. They went to meetings, ate meals, drank toasts, exchanged hugs before and after, but nothing came of it, and by the time it all reached Netanyahu the time had run out. That’s it. Now he has to make a decision. I mean right now. Our central, existential problem is Iran. Not only ours, but the whole Middle East. What’s worse, there’s a possibility right now of a new axis of evil coalescing, running through Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon. It will be a supply line for terrorism against Israel and will run a very sophisticated war to de-legitimize us. This whole business with the flotillas is just a taste of what they can cook up. Our American friends will not line up behind our needs. So either we line up with them, or it will be very bad. This is the first time in the history of our relationship with the United States that they’ve gone along with a demand for oversight of our nuclear capabilities. The first time. It’s very serious. What Netanyahu has to do is to stop being afraid. The coalition is behind him. It’s true that the Israeli people has been moving rightward, that it’s tired of talking and big philosophies and descriptions of how peace will come. They want to see action on the ground, and if Netanyahu manages to secure an agreement with the Palestinians, most of the people will follow him. … He can do it. I’m telling you from first-hand knowledge, from conversations with Likud ministers and Knesset members. He’ll have backing. He can do it. The question is whether he wants to. And that, I can’t answer. I’m counting on his upcoming trip to America, his meeting with Obama. He doesn’t have a lot of choices. The Americans are speaking very plainly.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).