Oslo, Birthright, and me
Speaking tonight at Tenafly JCC

Oslo, Birthright, and me

Yossi Beilin talks about his past

Yossi Beilin, right, debates with Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party in a 2012 television appearance.
Yossi Beilin, right, debates with Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party in a 2012 television appearance.

For a man who never served as Israel’s prime minister, Dr. Yossi Beilin had an outsized impact on Israeli history.

A journalist for the Labor party paper Davar who entered politics as a Labor Party spokesman before being appointed cabinet secretary by Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 1984, Dr. Beilin made his mark with two bold policies that were reluctantly but influentially adopted by the Israeli government: the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, and the Birthright Israel program.

On Thursday, Dr. Beilin will address “The future of Israel in the Middle East” at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, in a program sponsored by the Israeli-American Council.

Dr. Beilin — he holds a doctorate in political science from Tel Aviv University — ended his political career in 2008, having served as a Knesset member for 20 years, and as deputy foreign minister, justice minister, and minister of religious affairs.

Today, he has a private consulting firm — Beilink — that connects Israelis with governments and companies abroad. And he works on two projects in the public arena. One is an effort to preserve Jewish cemeteries in Europe.

Yossi Beilin
Yossi Beilin

“It’s a big project,” Dr. Beilin said. “There are 10,000 of them. The idea is to try to save them from real estate people who want to grab land, from anti-Semitic vandalism, and from vegetation” that will overgrow the cemeteries now that there is no longer a Jewish community to maintain them.

Earlier this year, he helped shepherd a resolution through the Council of Europe’s congress of local and regional authorities calling on those authorities to safeguard Jewish cemeteries.

The other public project concerns the issue that stands out on his resume, a resolution of the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. He was one of the lead organizers of the Geneva Initiative, an unofficial, nonbinding, 50-page proposed final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that was published, with endorsements from leading Israelis and Palestinians involved in the peace process, in 2003 but never was adopted officially by either side. Today the associated Geneva Institute, with offices in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, organizes seminars and meetings “about the feasibility of making peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.

Is peace really feasible?

“Of course it is feasible,” Dr. Beilin said. “After all, we are all human beings. We demonize each other but that doesn’t mean that we are demons. There are prospects for creating a coalition of sanity against the lunatics and the extremists.

“It’s important to say that there is a model that carries the signatures of prominent Israelis and Palestinians. It is doable and we can solve all the outstanding issues, including Jerusalem and the refugees, if we wish to find the solutions and compromise on both sides.”

Dr. Beilin said that despite appearances, there has been good news on the peace front in recent years.

One piece of good news was the “unprecedented and very effective” security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “They are not happy to admit it, because it seems to some of them like collaborating with us, and we are not happy to admit that this is one of the reasons for the relatively quiet situation in the West Bank,” he said.

Another piece of good news was that even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “the staunch hawk, has been speaking about the Palestinian state.

“Even if he stipulated some very significant preconditions for such a state, it has become a kind of consensus in Israel, which is important,” Dr. Beilin said.

Dr. Beilin dismissed the significance of the prime minister’s election eve statement that it’s impossible to have a Palestinian state now. “This was part of his electoral campaign,” he said. “What in my view is significant is the fact that he is saying all the time that he is committed to a two-state solution. I think the mere fact that people like [former prime ministers] Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu, who were really perceived as staunch hawks who would never give up an inch of the West Bank, were speaking about a Palestinian state, is significant for the education of Israelis.

“They made the group in Israel that insists on Greater Israel a marginal one. There’s only one party in the government which openly opposes the idea of the two state solution, the Jewish Homeland party, and it only has two seats in the Knesset.”

Dr. Beilin sees good news even in last year’s abortive American-brokered negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. “I don’t think they were serious enough, but they show that we can get back to the negotiating table if we really want to,” he said.

That’s the good news.

“The worst news is the story of Gaza. That Gaza is under the rule of Hamas, and Hamas is not even thinking about peace with Israel — at the best case it’s talking about a long ceasefire — that is a real impediment. It makes any peace agreement between us and the Palestinians something to be implemented only with the West Bank,” he said.

The secret talks with the PLO that led to the Oslo accords was not the only controversial policy Dr. Beilin worked on during the Rabin government in the 1990s. The other, which led to the creation of Birthright, concerned the nature of the relationship between Israel and American Jews.

In 1999, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin welcomed the first planeload of Birthright students at Ben Gurion Airport.
In 1999, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin welcomed the first planeload of Birthright students at Ben Gurion Airport.

He told the American Jewish establishment in the mid 1990s, he recalled, that “‘We are not your poor nephew any more. My pseudo-uncle in America, who sent us packages in the ’50s, died already. The era of austerity is over, and you [the federations] continue to treat us as if we’re still in the ’50s. Israel is a relatively rich country. What you give us annually is very marginal.’ (Then it was $300 million; today it’s a little over $100 million.)

“‘But to collect money, you portray us as your poor nephew. That distances you and your children from us. You don’t want to visit your poor nephew. You want to visit your equal nephew.’”

This was long before Israel branded itself as Start Up Nation, however, and before missions to Israel included visits at the Google offices there.

Back in the ’90s, the leaders of the Jewish federations responded that they needed a connection with Israel, and that connection came from writing checks, Dr. Beilin said, and he responded that “your connection is to visit us.

“Take your money and put it in some kind of endowment that will enable them to come.”

In 1994, while serving as deputy foreign minister, he prepared the initial plan for what became Birthright Israel, a program that brings young Jews to Israel for a free 10-day visit.

“It was very controversial,” Dr. Beilin recalled. Israelis questioned “why you should finance the visits of rich American Jews when you have poor people in Sderot.” American Jewish leaders initially were opposed, but Dr. Beilin convinced them to support it — and leveraged that support to bring Israeli political leaders on board. Dr. Beilin credits Mr. Netanyahu with being one of the project’s first Israeli supporters. Dr. Beilin secured government funding for Birthright when he was a government minister during the Barak administration in the late 1990s.

In addition to the private American donors and the Israeli government, “now in Israel there’s a group of private donors who put money into it,” he said. “That’s something that’s new and encouraging.”

Looking back at his time in the foreign ministry, both as deputy minister and before that as director general, Dr. Beilin is particularly proud of two other achievements.

“One of my most important projects was the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican. It was kind of an Oslo — there was a very important backchannel before official negotiations.

“Until two weeks before we signed, people said there was no chance to have an agreement with the Vatican. It seemed almost imaginary. For years and years the Vatican was not ready to officially recognize us. The negotiations were long and very unique. The ramifications were very important. Although it was important to insist that relations did not mean peace between Christianity and the Jewish people, but between two sovereign states, everyone knew what they represented.

“The other thing was the imposition of sanctions against South Africa. I did that when I was director general of the foreign ministry in 1987. This was a revolution, after years of silent collaboration between Israel and South Africa.”

So how does Dr. Beilin feel about sanctions against Israel?

“It is hypocritical and really crazy to think and talk about boycotting Israel, when — with all its flaws and problems — it is still the only democracy here,” he said. “You have countries that are so obviously high on the list that boycotting Israel is a sad joke that should be fought against.

“I can understand a campaign for peace, a campaign for the end of occupation. But not boycotting. That is something that is used as a last resort against regimes that do not have the ability to have an internal debate. In Israel today, you have a government that almost doesn’t have a coalition. Netanyahu has only 61 Knesset members in his coalition.

“Of course, any attempt to boycott Israel is uniting all of us against those who want to boycott us, rather than enabling us to have our democratic fight in Israel,” he said.

On Thursday night at the Tenafly JCC, Dr. Beilin will be speaking under the aegis of the Israeli-American Council, which brings together, and gives a profile to, Israelis in America who previously had been reviled by Israeli. Perhaps the most famous insult toward yordim — Israelis who left the country — was that of Yitzhak Rabin, who called them “nefolet shel nemushot,” a phrase difficult to translate literally but roughly equivalent to “contemptible wimps.”

“When someone says ‘I’m leaving Israel’ I’m far from happy,” Dr. Beilin said. “I would like to have every Israeli and every Jew live in Israel. But I will fight for his or her right to do that. It is their right to live wherever they want. We are talking about human beings in a democracy.”

If Israelis are going to live outside of Israel, “I believe it’s important for them to have contact with each other, to have their network,” he added. “This is part of Jewish continuity. If those groups have the chance to meet their peers, to share their views with each other, this is one of the contributions to Jewish continuity. If you don’t have the opportunity to meet other Jews, the prospects of assimilation are much higher. They should do what they want, but do it together.”

Save the Date

Who: Yossi Beilin

What: Talk on “The Future of Israel in the Middle East”

When: Thursday, July 9, 8 p.m.

How much: $15 in advance, $25 at the door

Visit jccotp.org for tickets

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