My cell phone rings. It is an unidentified number. Shit. Suspecting it’s the ex, I hit ignore. Checking voicemail minutes later, it’s (and I shit you not) a 20-year senior member of the Israeli parliament, asking to meet me. Flattered of course I was, but humored also. Because of the many progressive Israel entanglements in which I find myself these days, it’s not surprising that an aide in the office of Meretz MK Ran Cohen thought I might be able to offer him political and financial assistance as he prepares to run for chairmanship of the Meretz party primaries on March 18th. No doubt he was surprised when a 24-year-old showed up with nothing along those lines to offer. Regardless, escort he did let me to a coffeeshop gathering of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom activists in NYC where this interview was taken.
This interview was approximately a month ago and is all the more relevant now that party chairman Yossi Beilin announced he was not going to run for reelection and endorsed Hiam Oron.
MK Ran Cohen dreams of reclaiming the social justice agenda which Meretz has lost to Beilin’s focus on the peace process and thereby regaining the 5 seats Meretz has steadily lost over the past 10 years. Meretz has lost on average one seat a year, primarily in support from low-income Russians and immigrants as it became a one-trick peace pony. As The Economist said delicately, Beilin “ran it [Meretz] into the ground. His own defence, that other parties had appropriated Meretz’s peace agenda, is only partly true; he neglected its other core issues such as social justice and civil rights.” Cohen talks briefly here about all the issues of the day — Annapolis, the future of Kadima, and his party — and his hopes for Meretz.
KFJ: Is it important that Annapolis is happening?
RC: The answer is clearly yes, for two reasons. Even though I’m not so optimistic either. Ehud Olmert is not going to make comprehensive peace without a reasonable solution to Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. But the only way to open roads to continued negotiations are meetings like Annapolis.
The other reason: every minute without negotiations equals a minute with less violence. Terrorists won’t wait. Hamas will burn [incite] the situation. Hamas is sensitive to the demands of the Palestinian people; without hope among the people, Hamas will send bombers to fill the vaccuum. Dialogue is the best way to prevent violence.
KFJ: With such dismal expectations, how do we inspire Americans to support Annapolis?
In principle, we must push every leader to dialogue. [But] I do not believe Prime Minister Olmert can acheive it. A change of government to a 1999-2000 Labor-Meretz coalition will make it happen.
KFJ: Does that mean it’s better not to hold the Annapolis conference then?
Better to have it, better to be ready to continue dialogue. It is the basis for continuing.
KFJ: How effective will Annapolis be without Hamas? Should Hamas be invited?
In principle, the minute Hamas was elected by the Palestinians, I supported dialogue with them. Right now, there is an imminent reason: our soldiers are in their hands. Gilad Shalit is waiting. How long? We have no choice but to dialogue.
12,000 Palestinians are in our prisons; keeping them there will not make them Zionists. The first day [of a proposed prisoner swap], I say to Amir Peretz, “Release 2,000 prisoners.” What happened in Lebanon [instead]? We lost many, we killed many, our soldiers are now in their hands.
Now Yossi Beilin [chairman of Meretz party] has my opinion — dialogue with Hamas. Release prisoners to help peace. It’s popular in the eyes of Israelis.
KFJ: The Brazinsky letter by the International Crisis Group recommends the US and UN pressure all parties, especially Israel, to make compromises.
AIPAC wouldn’t like that.
KFJ: Ha ha, yes, AIPAC wouldn’t like that.
Israel should be pressured! Ehud, Abbas and Bush are doing it [holding the Annapolis conference] for themselves, especially Bush after these foolish steps in Iraq!
KFJ: It is said that Annapolis is bound to fail to produce a schedule for final status negotiations if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert loses his coalition in the Knesset, but that the failure will be good to demonstrate who supports peace.
The big thing in the Middle East, after all our efforts for peace, [shows] the only way to prevent war is dialogue. I took part in every war, every war is for peace but it never comes.
KFJ: And what if Shas and Avigdor Leiberman’s parties pull of the Knesset coalition if Jerusalem enters negotiations?
I don’t think they’ll quit. Ehud Olmert won’t do anything for them to leave. He’s fighting for his life, if he loses this government. Out of 78 members [Knesset members of the present coalition] Shas is 12 and Leiberman is 9, leave together less than the 60 needed to stay in power. He will give [the head rabbi of Shas] money and they will stay.
Kadima has 29 seats and will lose twenty in the next election. The pensioners will disappear, another ten. That means there are 30 seats to the right or to the left in the next elections.
Bibi [Netanyahu] wants them to Likud. He’s not saying [things] so extremist now to get those center [votes]. Ehud Barak is saying he’s the “man of security.” Not Ami Ayalon — he’s a good man, not a politician. Even if Tzipi leads Kadima, she’ll not be Prime Minister. There are just two — Bibi Netanyahu or Ehud Barak.
Because of social justice, two-states, some will support Meretz at 10 to 12 seats. With Labor 40 to 45 seats, we will build a new government, the only way to return to the peace and social justice process.
When I returned from the Six Day War, I was a young officer in the party and I took my party to show them the West Bank. I came immediately. I told my soldiers now is the right time for Palestinians to allow their own state. My driver said “Why? They have pita and hummus, why more?” I said, people all over the world need their own state.” Seventy-percent of people [Israelis] believe it! We suffered a lot for that. People right now support two states. That is the game.
KFJ: You’re running for the chairmanship of Meretz, to replace Yossi Beilin. What’s the difference between you and Yossi Beilin?
Formally, yes, we have the same ideology? Yossi Beilin separated us to a very isolated position. 45,000 of the poorest Israelis once voted Meretz and Labor into power, and the poorest are [typically] Likudniks. We won because we promised fairer housing. Now we don’t do that anymore. We lost the social justice vote. I will bring it back.
KFJ: You were formerly Minister of Industry and Trade under Ehud Barak. What positions in the government do you want for Meretz and yourself?
I would like to be Education Minister. [The present minister] is a good friend but she’s not a good minister. To build a plan to lead to 20-25 pupils not 40, good salaries for teachers, why not? To kill the bureaucracy. Billions go to trash which don’t help pupils.
KFJ: What can we do to help you? As the American Jewish progressive movement.
I’m not the best expert on American Jews. But first, how to influence Israel to support the Palestinians. Second, how to make it popular to believe this is the right way. As you can help leftists like Meretz, dovish Labor, Shalom Achshav, the better.
KFJ: Do Israelis really want to hear from Americans on these issues?
First, in every dialogue there are two sides. Israelis will listen and voices from Jewish people in the States should be ready to speak.