While walking by the Tel Aviv seashore promenade, I was approached by a slick blond guy who invited me to visit lady luck. A mixed crowd of tourists and folks from Afula and Dimona had gathered to watch this street artist with fast hands, three glasses and a ball. 'Try and guess, where the ball is, and you win a hundred bucks', he said. I laughed. Did he take me for a country hick? No big city man would try this game, as one can't beat the dealer. The right choice in this game is to refuse to choose.
So don't come looking for me on the 6th of February, when the drums call the citizens of Israel to vote. I will not be making a beeline for the election booth. I'd rather help the villagers besieged by Barak's troops, and there, without trepidation, I shall wait for the news of Sharon's victory.
At the first sight, this election is a sham. It is similar to the Soviet style one-party elections. Of course, the Russians never came up with the brilliant idea to offer citizens the choice of Brezhnev vs Chernenko. The citizens of Israel should envy the Buridan's ass. This silly animal of the medieval allegory could not choose between two identical bales of hay. We have to choose between two equally unappetizing generals, old Arab-fighters, unconvincingly mouthing the word 'peace'. The choice is further made irrelevant by their declared intent to form a coalition government immediately after the election.
The polls predict victory for general Sharon, the world-famous symbol of 'cruel Zionism'. His name is connected with mass murders of civilians in Qibya, Sabra and Shatila, and the siege of Beirut. His "sightseeing" of Haram al-Sharif jumpstarted the most recent eruption of civil war in Palestine. He is a certified war criminal. Still, I will not rush to save Barak's skin. I look forward with hope. I have a few reasons for my optimism, and callous indifference is not one of them. It is true, the election could be seen as just another of the endless con games that plague Israeli politics. It is a good cop / bad cop routine on the Palestinians. Once again, the fate of the Palestinians is being toyed with by men who are out to score public relations points.
Labour and Likud are reenacting the memorable dialogue from this great American novel, Moby Dick. When Ishmael, the hero of Melville's book, seeks a place on a whaler, the mean skipper Bildad offers him a pittance, while his co-owner, captain Peleg explodes in visible anger: "Why, blast your eyes, Bildad, thou dost not want to swindle this young man! He must have more than that" and offers him anyway much less then what Ishmael could rightly expect. Well, as in our life, Ishmael is not asked, he just has to submit.
Having said that, I will be the first to admit that the two candidates still differ. The Jewish joke tells of two kinds of fools, a summer fool and a winter fool. Whenever a summer fool comes in, you immediately recognize him for a fool. Whenever a winter fool comes in, it takes time until he removes his greatcoat, shakes snow off his fur hat, and only then you understand that he is a fool. Barak is a winter fool. Until he started to shoot, it was possible to retain a few delusions about the man. Sharon is a summer fool. You immediately see him for what he is. There is an advantage in dealing with such a man. His peace cooing will convince no one. He will have to produce tangible results in order to survive.
Barak reminds me of my late spinster aunt Ethel. She refused every suitor, after letting him believe that this time it will be different. For years, we hoped she would do the right thing and get married. If not married, find herself a companion to make up for decades of loneliness. But she could not. We felt pity for whoever happened to be her current suitor, as we watched him painfully crawling home. He should know better, aunt Ethel would not surrender even if she wanted, as she was afraid of men.
Ehud Barak was notorious for promising and reneging on his promise. Actually, he did not fulfill a single promise. For instance, his government decided to free the villages of Anata and Abu Dis. A few days later, he found a reason to keep them captive. In the interview given to the Vesti newspaper last week, he was offered to name his main achievement. Barak replied: 'I revealed to the world the true face of Arafat'. Barak changes opinions twice a day. He sends and recalls delegations and he is unreliable. Speaking in American terms, you would not buy a new car from him, let alone a used one. What is worse, Barak does not like Palestinians. This arrogant and unpleasant man refused to invite the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who elected him, into his government. On a personal level, I can easier visualize Sharon in a company of Palestinian friends over a hummus, than Barak ever hiring a Palestinian gardener. He would probably prefer Thai. The war crime record of Sharon is not unique. Barak's long list of assassinations would not look good in The Hague, either.
We are doomed to live with war criminals. A just court would try not only Sharon and Barak, but also the perpetrators of sanctions against the people of Iraq and Serbia bombing. The murderers of 3 million Vietnamese still walk free, and probably sit in the Capitol Hill. Many Israelis of Sharon's generation were Arab fighters, and quite ruthless ones, too. But they did not look on a Palestinian as a low-life that ought to be contained or exterminated.
Like many of my Israeli contemporaries, I did my time in the army. I remember the smell of cordite, jeep's flight in the desert, the green sky of night vision, shrieks of shrapnel, Suez crossing, twin tents, fellowship of arms. As a young soldier in a crack unit, I was proud of my red boots and paratroops wings. I listened with a wistful heart to the stories of the brave deeds of Arik Sharon and Meir Har Zion. (Yes, it was before Sabra and Shatila).
I am not ashamed to admit I cherish them together with the courage of Karame fighters and that daredevil Leila Khaled. Soldiers can understand other soldiers. Together we form Palestine.
Whenever the beautiful green Palestine would be united, all her communities will bring their best achievements into the common cause of making this special land the best place on earth, as it should be. The Palestinians will contribute their art of growing olives and tending the springs, their peasant love of the land and unbroken spirit of Intifada. Our Israeli contribution won't include Einstein's theory or Wall Street's wizardry, as we do not understand it, but the military exploits worthy of Crusaders' glory. In Palestine, we don't need peace. We do not need separation, even on the best of terms. We need love and compassion, and life together. On the position of the prime minister, we do not need a de Gaulle. We need a de Klerk.
Sharon and his people are held together by a perverse form of love to the land. It is perverse because they imagine it is possible to love Palestine without Palestinians. But Palestine is not a dead object, it is a live country and Palestinians are her soul. Still, it is easier to deal with these perverts than with those who would prefer to turn Palestine into a part of Eastern Europe or the East Coast.
The civil war in Palestine (1947-2001) was possible only due to the external support of Zionists' ill-advised allies. Sharon's grizzly past makes the unlimited support of the organised American Jewry less likely and more precarious. The watchful presence of international observers, the possibility of the UN intervention, unencumbered by a US veto, the looming presence of a resurrected Iraq will be necessary to concentrate Sharon's mind. He is not the peaceful messiah on the white colt, but he is no more a scarecrow than Barak.
A military man, he should be offered the simple and the best solution to our ,problems: uni,fication of t,he country on, the basis of "one man, one vote". The temptation to bury the tomahawks, to end the civil war and to become the first ever-legitimate ruler of the united Palestine could be too much to withstand for this old soldier.
Then, who knows, we could beat the dealer even in this loaded game.
Israel Shamir is one of best-known and most respected Russian Israeli writers and journalists. He wrote for Haaretz, BBC, Pravda and translated Agnon, Joyce and Homer into Russian. He lives in Tel Aviv and writes a weekly column in the Vesti, the biggest Russian-language paper in Israel.