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The strange voyage of Avraham Burg

Avraham Burg was the chairman of the Jewish Agency. Now he speaks of a bi-national solution. What to make of him?

I can’t figure Avraham Burg out.

I was listening on Wednesday to a debate between him and Peace Now’s director, Yariv Oppenheimer, at Tel Aviv University. To be frank, I came to listen to MK Ahmed Tibi, who did not show up. The debate was about, sigh, Zionism and democracy.

While Oppenheimer took an openly admitted conservative position – which was predictable, somewhat boring, and out of touch with the few dozen radicals in the hall – Burg was exceptionally quotable.

During the evening he dropped several bombshells: He said that he was not at all certain Israel is a democracy; that Israel has failed to protect the security of the Jewish people to the point “that we have 200 denied nuclear bombs and every 90 seconds we hold a panel to debate whether we’ll survive”; that “the concept that if we solve the 1967 problem everything will be fine is flinging sand in our eyes; Israel would still be an ethnocracy”; that “Israel was kidnapped by the settlers, the Hamas kidnapped the Palestinians, and the majority is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome”; and he went far enough ahead to touch – with caution, admittedly – the third rail of Israeli politics, the demise of the two-state solution and the option of a bi-national state: “We’ve been speaking about a political settlement for decades. What do we do if there is none? We have to think hard about how to prepare for 40 more years without a settlement. A bi-national state has to be considered. This model must be checked”.

Has he realized he's politically toxic? Avraham Burg

All of which would not have been surprising coming from any of the radicals with Free Sheikh Jarrah T-shirts in the hall. It might not be surprising, perhaps, even from the Peace Now activists: this left-of-center organization has shown some signs of radicalization recently, including, this week, organizing olive-picking alongside Palestinians.

But Burg is different. He’s a former chairman of the Jewish Agency who, in the late 1990s became Speaker of the Knesset and who stood a hair’s breadth away from the leadership of the Labor Party in late 2001. He only left political life in 2004. And he fully admits he’s active in politics again.

So, the question everyone asks is: when did you see the light? When did you stop being a Zionist and walked this particular road to Damascus? The problem with Burg is that he consistently avoids giving a straight answer, which, being a public figure who wants to be back in politics, is essential. During the debate, he taunted Oppenheimer for being a member of Labor. For someone who left the party just six years ago, and nine years ago was fighting tooth and nail for its leadership, I thought it was one stone’s throw too many, for a person living in a glass house.

Burg seems to recognize that this omission, as well as some scandals – he engaged the Jewish Agency in a legal fight, over a Jeep and driver he was entitled to; he received French citizenship and recommended that every Israeli acquire a second passport (Hebrew) – makes him politically toxic. The Jeep issue is particularly problematic; it branded him instantly as a member of the sybaritic leadership (Olmert, Netanyahu, Barak in particular). People may forget and forgive him his French passport; after all, it is the secret – and sometimes, not so secret – dream of many Israelis. But they won’t forget the Jeep.

So, what he intends to do – according to what he said on Wednesday – is create a party, whose core would be the Sheikh Jarrah activists that he holds in high esteem, but will include other democratic elements, but which will not be led by him. He said he isn’t running for Knesset.

Labor had a long and somewhat touching, somewhat ludicrous tradition in which its leaders always protested they aren’t interested in power, and only accepted it reluctantly, “accepting the verdict of the movement”. Let’s see if Burg has really cut his moorings with Labor and will refrain from that tradition when the new party is created.

(Yossi Gurvitz)

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    1. rbmeritt

      This is the man who will lead Israel out of darkness on the face of the deep and shine a light on many things. He cautious as not to destroy things when the light is so bright it becomes nuclear. If he indeed is Phinehas he will stay the plague that has beset Israel in the last half century,the supremacy of occupation. There may be a year of Jubilee yet. He is THE ONE! Just when you thought all was lost someone appears out of nowhere. Ya gotta love it Yossi.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Say what?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ben Israel

      Yossi-you have to remember Burg is a POLITICIAN. That explains many inconsistencies.
      But I don’t find him any more confusing than I find your beliefs. You are a Hasid of Prof Sand saying there is no such thing as aa Jewish people, you say Jews have no right to make aliyah, yet you say “Israel has a right to exist” and you even serve in the IDF. Doesn’t make any sense to me.

      You forgot to add that Burg has been involved in borderline criminal activity, besides his unseemly fight for the car and driver from the Jewish Agency. He was involved in setting up a consortium with people from organized crime, using his political connections, to get the Ashot Ashqelon plant which makes products for the IDF for far below its real worth. Fortunately, the State Controller stepped in and stopped the deal. Burg was investigated by the police who accepted his claim that he didn’t realize his friends were in the Mafia.
      You also didn’t mention that his victory in the Labor Party primaries was thrown out due to massive fraud (ballot box stuffing).
      Yes, he is certainly the moral beacon he is always saying he is.

      Reply to Comment
    4. I’ve been writing what Sand wrote for more than 10 years before he did, though in less polished jargon. Don’t try to condescend: you lack the necessary gravitas.

      Israel has a right to exist because it exists and because its dismantling will cause much more suffering than its continued existence. It has no right to exist as a racist state, and any attempt to create a Jewish state will create a racist one. And the world already hasd enough racist states as it is.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben Israel

      If you want to have copyright on the ideas Sand is pushing, that is fine with me. As I understand it, he is not a historian, but then again, from what I see in your blurb here, neither are you, you are a journalist.

      I asked you in a previous thread why the Arabs should make peace with Israel since from your and their points of view the Jews are alien invaders who have no business being here. You did not answer and I am still waiting. You don’t want suffering? Who says the Arabs agree with you and want the same thing you want? Maybe they view Justice (from their point of view) is more important. After, the “non-racist” Israel you are dreaming of would still be an abomination in their eyes…an outpost of alien Western values and ideas that will either intentionally or unintentionally undermine their Arab/Muslim values (ironically it is the settlers and Haredim who are much closer in values to the Arabs than the “anti-racist” Left in Israel is and ultimately it is they who will reach a modus-vivendi with the Arabs, not the “peace camp” Left!)

      Reply to Comment
    6. My fear is that he will prove to be a spoiler, splitting the left and quasi-left even further.
      In my opinion, unless he combines his party with, Meretz, Hadash, and other left wing organizations, he will be but a memory after the next election.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben Israel

      Burg has explained why he wants a party that is separate from MERETZ and HADASH. Both of those are “socialist parties” which push off pro-capitalist, pro-globalization non-Zionists (e.g. blogger Dr Bernard Avishai). Also, although it is not exactly politically correct to state it, HADASH is an “Arab” party — anti-Zionist blogger “Jerry Haber” said he switched from MERETZ to HADASH because the Jews in HADASH restrain themselves and “allow” the Arabs to run the party, even though the natural inclination of the Jews is to push the Arabs aside and run it themselves.
      From what I observe, this party has no future-even if it should manage to get into the Knesset it will fractionate and self-destruct, just like the much larger Shinui party that had went from 15 seats to zero in one fell swoop. The reason is that these parties are essentially have a negative message. Shinui was anti-Haredi and Burg’s party is anti-settler. Neither can agree on what positive platform they have.
      Take the protestors at Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan-the one thing that unites them is hatred of the settlers and that is what brings the protestors out. They do NOT agree on their basic platform. Some want to bring Israeli flags saying they are “patriotic Zionist Israelis” who believe Zionism can survive only if Israeli gets out of the West Bank. Others are anti-Zionists who think getting Israel out of the West Bank is only the first step in the ultimate eradication of Zionism. Some are one-staters, some are anarchists, some are anti-Zionist two-staters (i.e. Israel will be allowed to exist but only if it eradicates all Jewish state symbols) etc.
      Even if the party should enter the Knesset what could it accomplish? Would a Kadima gov’t be willing to include it in a cabinet? Would Zionist parties in such a coalition be willing to adopt its policies? Hard to imagine in a country where the large majority of the population is strongly pro-Zionist.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Robert


      I have a serious legal question that relates to Israeli Law and racial discrimination. You wrote in this post Playing With Fire, “a “person who is eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return” – that’s how you put the word “Jew” into Israeli law without making the bill sound too racist”.

      My question: Is this really a legal circumlocution that is used consistently throughout Israeli Law? That is, does Israeli Law always say “person who is eligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return” instead of “Jew” as a way of writing discrimination into many laws, not just the loyalty oath law? Is there a separate legal code in some areas that makes use of this language?

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    9. Hi Robert,

      It’s generally not a part of law (חקיקה ראשית) but of an ordinance every ministry uses frequently. It is also rather common in military administration (for instance, there are some roads in the West Bank which are open not to Israelis, which will include Israeli Arabs, but rather to “persons who are elligible to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return”.) The fact the formula is making it into a law is a sign of deterioration in and of itself.

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    10. Mark Marshall

      To Ben Israel: You said to Yossi Gurvitz, “I asked you in a previous thread why the Arabs should make peace with Israel since from your and their points of view the Jews are alien invaders who have no business being here.”

      Yossi Gurvitz of course will speak for himself. But as far as I am concerned, the answer to your question is stunningly obvious: the Arabs will make peace with Israel if they believe that it is in their interest to do so, and they will not make peace with Israel if they believe that it is not in their interest to do so. Whether or not they and/or Yossi Gurvitz believe that “the Jews are alien invaders who have no business being here” is utterly irrelevant to that question.

      And moreover, absolutely *nothing* Yossi Gurvitz could possibly say or do could possibly have any bearing whatsoever on the question of whether or not the Arabs believe that “the Jews are alien invaders who have no business being here.”

      Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel, and they have meticulously kept that peace. Do you really think that Jordan and Egypt have maintained the peace that they made with Israel because the leaders of Jordan and Egypt genuinely believe that the Jews are part of the indigenous population of Israel and as such have the moral right to live there??? Of course not. Jordan and Egypt are maintaining peaceful relations with Israel because the leaders of Jordan and Egypt are convinced that the benefits that accrue to Jordan and Egypt from peaceful relations with Israel outweigh the harm such relations cause to those states.

      Mark Marshall
      Toronto, Canada

      Reply to Comment