Editorial: Two Wounded Bulls in a China Shop

Scandals are rocking both the Israeli and Palestinian establishments. The Bar-On affair has undermined Netanyahu's moral position at home and abroad. In the West Bank, responding to a teachers' strike, Arafat's secret service has arrested at least 25 of them. The two affairs come at a time when the Oslo negotiations are stuck and the weakened leaders cannot find a formula to get them going again.

For three months the Israeli police investigated charges that criminal interests lay behind the government's appointment of Roni Bar-On to the powerful position of Government Legal Advisor. (Bar-On resigned after 48 hours in office. See Challenge No. 42, Editorial.) The police finally recommended four indictments: against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, Shas leader Arieh Deri, and Netanyahu's closest aide, Avigdor Lieberman. The matter then went to Bar-On's successor, Eliakim Rubinstein, and Chief Prosecutor Edna Arbel. Despite the police recommendations, and despite those of the three most experienced prosecutors on their team, they decided to indict only Deri.

Thus Rubinstein and Arbel prevented a total collapse of the government. Their accompanying report was extremely harsh, however. The gist is contained in this sentence: "Persons who were themselves involved in trials for criminal offenses joined forces, for the sake of their own interests, to determine the government's choice of its legal advisor. By means of their connections and political clout, they succeeded." The report also accused Netanyahu and his clique of trying to take control of the legal apparatus in Israel.

As of this writing, Netanyahu seems to have escaped by the skin of his teeth (and by the weakness of his memory under interrogation). Within Israel the scandal has won him sympathy from the lower socio-economic strata, which view the media and the judicial system as puppets of the Labor-Meretz elite.

The prime minister has also managed so far to hold his coalition together. Ministers Dan Meridor and Limor Livnat, as well as the political parties which had threatened to quit, all decided they would be more effective fighting for good government from within.

The Labor-Meretz supporters view Netanyahu as a fluke, an outsider, a skillful manipulator who managed to squeeze into power precisely at a time when a new law had immensely strengthened the office of prime minister. Pundit Joel Marcus writes: "The question on the agenda is not in the criminal arena but rather in the public one: Is he fit to lead the country?" (Ha'aretz, April 25.) Labor has no trust in his character, motives or ability. Like the Americans they gape in astonishment as he blunders about in the china shop of Middle Eastern politics.

The hope had been to fence him in with a national-unity government, but the Bar-On scandal may have unfit Netanyahu even for that. If the US doesn't bring him into line, Labor fears, his egomania will lead Israel back to the cold, dark isolation of the pre-Oslo time. The world will again see this country for what it is.

On the other side of the barricades, an unprecedented conflict is developing. This time it is not Arafat versus the "opponents of peace." It is Arafat versus 19,000 teachers of the governmental schools which the Palestinian Authority (PA) manages. These teachers, 78% of the total in the West Bank, began their struggle in mid-January, demanding a 50% pay increase, as well as better social and medical benefits. At first they held meetings and organized partial strikes. After a while, however, they perceived that the Teachers' Union, with its pro-Arafat leadership, was curtailing the fight. They founded an alternative entity, called the Higher Coordinating Committee of Teachers (HCCT). This took over the management of the strike, and by March school classes had come to a halt. PA officials began portraying the struggle as an attempt to undermine the PA at "a time of crisis." For their part, the teachers called for a meeting with Arafat on April 19. This proved disastrous. He sent them away empty-handed and humiliated. Nevertheless, they persisted in the strike. Two days later secret-service men arrested 25 of the leaders in their homes. The PA then faked an announcement, as if from the 25, calling on all teachers to go back to work. On the day of this writing, April 27, the 25 were released; the strike has been suspended. We await the outcome.

This teachers' strike brings out several noteworthy points. In the past they would not have challenged Arafat at a time of crisis. The irony is, he has just begun to enjoy a measure of legitimization from the side of his secular opponents. Unlike the political leaders, however, people at the grass-roots level no longer trust Arafat.

One of the factors has been the teachers' growing awareness of how corrupt the system is. Thanks to monopolies and protection money, Arafat's cronies are getting fantastically rich under Oslo. The teachers refuse to stand and watch this happen while their own families barely scrape by.

But there is also a more ominous level. Here we see a security apparatus, which was supposedly established to hunt down opponents of the peace process, but in the blink of an eye it is turned upon strikers conducting a labor dispute! No court order was given for these arrests. No judge deliberated. Instead came the knock on the door in the night, and the same secret-service men knocking. Thus we get a glimpse of the new regime for what it is.

The Bar-On scandal and the repression of the teachers' strike present a picture of two weakened leaders, each threatened internally while facing a political process which their natural constituencies refuse to accept. That process killed Yitzhak Rabin and brought Netanyahu to power. It transformed Arafat into his people's worst enemy. Instead of bringing stability into the region, as its architects desired, the Oslo process has only generated scandal, repression, and violence. The USA, chief patron of the new Middle East, must be asking itself, "What did I do to deserve such a child?" It must have done something.