On 10 May 1994, Yasser Arafat declared in a Johannesburg mosque that the Oslo agreements were a modern version of the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah signed in the year 628 between Mohamed and the Kuraish tribe of Mecca (Mohamed signed this treaty for lack of better options, but once he grew in strength he broke the deal and killed his enemies). Then Environment Minister Yossi Sarid reacted angrily to Arafat’s Johannesburg speech: “Arafat [must] declare that the grave things he said in the Johannesburg mosque are null and void and that he is standing by the agreement with Israel” he warned.
Sarid’s demand, unfortunately, made no difference: the Labor-led government elected in 1992 turned the “peace process” into an end in itself, and Arafat knew he would get away with anything. As for the Israeli left, it progressively scared off the average voter with its rhetoric and deeds. Education Minister Shulamit Aloni missed no opportunity to ridicule Judaism and to offend tradition-minded Israelis. Chief Justice Aharon Barak declared that “the enlightened ones” should be granted the last word, via the Supreme Court, about ideological controversies. Sarid himself, as Education Minister in 2000, suggested adding Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish to the curriculum of Israeli schools.
Had the Israeli left convinced Israeli voters that its policy was motivated by political realism and that its ultimate purpose was to maintain Israel’s Jewish majority, it might have kept the trust of Israel’s mainstream even after the failure of the July 2000 Camp David summit and the eruption of the second intifada. But the words and deeds of Aharon Barak, of Shulamit Aloni, and even of Yossi Sarid himself convinced hesitant voters that Oslo was not only (or even maybe not at all) about Realpolitik.
Yossi Sarid blamed Arafat for the Israeli Left’s political exile since 2000. Sarid had a point: Arafat’s rejection of the Camp David proposal in July 2000 and of the Clinton Parameters in December 2000 dealt a fatal blow to the Israeli left — a blow from which it has not yet recovered. But the Israeli left lost the trust of most Israelis not only because of Arafat. It also lost that trust because of its arrogance and scorn. And the Israeli left does not seem to learn from its mistakes: before the 2015 elections, it threw hesitant Israeli voters into the arms of the right by hosting in one of its electoral rallies Israeli artist Yair Garboz who ridiculed traditional and religious Jews.
Yossi Sarid, in a way, encapsulated the tragedy of the Israeli left: he was brilliant and insightful, but his arrogance and obnoxiousness kept him away from power. He just couldn’t help showing disdain for the people whose votes he needed to govern.
This is a shame, because Yossi Sarid was a man of exceptional courage, integrity, and insightfulness.
He stuck to his principles even at the price of his political career. He quit Labor in 1984 because he disagreed with Shimon Peres’ decision to form a government with Likud. This principled decision cost Yossi Sarid his political life: he was 44 and was set to eventually become Labor’s chairman and, probably, Israel’s prime minister. Ten years later, as a member of Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet, Yossi Sarid initiated the sending of an Israeli military field hospital to Zaire to save lives from the Rwandan genocide.
Sarid was one of the rare voices who opposed the first Lebanon War. Yet he was far from being indifferent to the fate of the Galilee’s residents. On the contrary: he moved with his family to the northern city of Kiryat Shmona while it was being shelled by the PLO. Back then, Sarid realized that Ariel Sharon was deceiving the government and the Israeli public about the war’s aims. Sarid’s judgement about Sharon was as accurate in 1982 and it was in 2003 when Sharon initiated the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. “The depth of the withdrawal will be proportional to the depth of the police investigation [against Sharon]” he said to MK Tvi Hendel (who unduly took credit for this typical Sarid wittiness).
As we are about to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, we are reminded of the Jewish civil war between Hellenized Jews and the Hasmoneans. The controversy between the two sides has not abated. Hellenized Jews often used political realism as an excuse to abandon Judaism. Traditional Jews were so keen to preserve Judaism that they often ignored the political reality (as tragically proven by Bar-Kokhva’s revolt).
Both Israel’s right and left can and should learn a lesson from Yossi Sarid. The left must understand that you cannot insult and scare off people whose vote you solicit. The right should remember that there is a price to be paid for ignoring reality. Sarid’s voice will be missed, precisely because it was harsh.