At 38, Yehiel (Hilik) Bar represents a new generation of leadership of Israel’s grand old party, Avoda or Labor. At the request of his party’s new leader, Isaac (“Buji”) Herzog, he has stayed on longer than the customary three years (but not for much longer, he told us, because he is now a Member of Knesset). And he has already taken impressive leadership roles as an M.K., as deputy speaker and as head of the Knesset caucus for resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict.
|Hilik Bar, M.K.|
I gained a lot of insight at a luncheon meeting with him in New York under the auspices of Ameinu, the American group associated with Labor Zionism. First, he’s upbeat: He is enthusiastic about the emergence of Buji Herzog as Labor’s leader and indicates that polls show Labor winning about 20 seats, up from its current 15. He notes that “there are no big parties anymore in Israel,” citing the fact that today’s ruling Likud party has a mere 20 M.K.s, with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) standing at 19, and Labor currently as #3; polls reveal Lapid’s party declining to perhaps 12, if elections were held now.
At the same time, he is impressed by the rise in popularity of Meretz, up in opinion polls from its current six seats to 10 or 11. He sees this as “good news,” both for Meretz and Labor. There was also some discussion about the possibility of Livni’s party leaving the Netanyahu government and amalgamating with Labor in some way, either running on a joint list or being absorbed into Labor. Bar could not say much on this, indicating that he doesn’t really know what’s likely, but he speculated that Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna (both former Labor Party leaders who joined Livni’s list for the 2013 elections) might return on their own. He did make the historical observation that joint lists tend to win fewer seats together than the parties would running separately.
My question had to do with the prospects for the approximate 70-seat majority of the current Knesset that could support a reasonable compromise peace with the Palestinians
replacing Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition. I suggested that this would have most to do with how Lapid proceeds, because his party has sufficient seats to break Netanyahu’s government should he decide to do so; then the question could become one of competing egos as to whom, most likely either Lapid or Herzog, would emerge as prime minister. Bar argued that Lapid did not run in last year’s election with the intention of being prime minister but rather to deliver change, which he mostly has not yet done, and that Herzog as an experienced cabinet minister — with especially high marks as minister of social welfare — is ready to serve as prime minister today. He also noted that the President is obligated under the law to give the job of attempting to assemble a governing coalition to the person most likely to succeed, not necessarily the party leader with the most seats. (Partly in this connection, but also due to his qualifications, he expressed hope that Labor’s candidate for President, Binyamin Fuad Ben-Eliezer, will defeat Likudnik Ruby Rivlin in next week’s Knesset vote.) But he feels that the most likely route to power for a more progressive coalition would be through a new election, rather than a change within the current sitting parliament.
I know he’d have to be secretive about any such maneuver in the current Knesset, but if Netanyahu’s coalition is not unseated soon (well before the next scheduled election in 2017), the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution grow dimmer by the day. Bar gives high marks to Palestinian Pres. Mahmoud Abbas for standing on principle for “20 years” in opposing violence (unlike his predecessor Yasir Arafat), for understanding that there will be no right of return for masses of refugees, and for resolving most issues with Ehud Olmert when the latter was prime minister. Bar also praised Olmert for his efforts, despite his recent conviction for corruption, explaining that Olmert established a personal relationship with Abbas (meeting with him “37 times”), which Netanyahu has not even attempted to duplicate.
Bar sees no likelihood of a better Palestinian leader for negotiating a deal with Israel, viewing their younger generation leadership as more nationalistic and hardline, which underscores for me the urgent immediate need for a parliamentary change of government. By the way, Bar noted how unserious Netanyahu was in negotiations when he chose the painful course of releasing prisoners (“terrorists”) rather than freezing settlement expansion (a point I made once as well). Yet Bar expressed disappointment that Abbas has rushed into a coalition agreement with Hamas and is making further unilateral moves at the UN. He does indicate that if Hamas were to accept some formulation for a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel, this would be good. But with Hamas still making uncompromising statements regarding armed struggle and terms on refugees & borders that are non-starters for Israel, the message that a unity government sends to Israel is less than encouraging.
Even though Bar does not see a near-option to return to peace talks with the Palestinians, he says he’s working on something “bigger” as head of the Knesset caucus to end the conflict — an Israeli response to the Arab Peace Initiative, finally, after it was first formulated 12 years ago. He’s trying to enlist Jordan, Egypt and one other Arab country for this effort. He insists that it’s increasingly clear that the Arab world and Israel “need each other.” For one thing, Israel needs an Arab League signoff on a peace deal with the Palestinians, to underscore that an Israeli-Palestinian treaty would constitute “an end of claims.”
Interestingly, it can be said that Bar is not a down-the-line dove in the way that Meretz politicians tend to be. He explained to us why he first supported and then withdrew support for a Knesset bill to permit Jewish prayer in a corner of the Temple Mount plaza where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aksa Mosque are located. First off, he says that he altered an existing right-wing bill to make it less provocative, and then withdrew sponsorship at the behest of his party leader; he believes that Jews should be able to pray somewhere on the Temple Mount, but understands that rather than being legislated by the Knesset, this needs to be negotiated at the tail end of a multilateral peace process including Jordan. He does not really favor a return of East Jerusalem to Arab sovereignty, but would not stand in the way if a peace agreement arrives at such a conclusion.
Last but not least, he does not trust Iran to negotiate in good faith on the nuclear issue and states that Buji Herzog and most Israelis are in agreement with Netanyahu on this. Nevertheless, he opposes a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, seeing this as having very bad consequences.
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