Yosef Ben-Aharon, a top assistant to Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, remembers his boyhood in Egypt with a certain fondness--a curious sentiment perhaps for someone considered a hard-liner on relations with the Arab world.
He grew up in Port Said, a bustling town in the years before and during World War II. He recalls the place as tolerant and easygoing. But still, the occasional hostile whisper along with feelings of personal vulnerability stay with him. “It’s not very appealing growing up as a minority even in a society that is relatively tolerant,” he says now. “Anti-Jewishness exists in many places and is not yet dying out.”
This dual view of the outside world--a place that can in many instances be tolerant and even hospitable, yet where lurks incipient anti-Semitism--goes a long way toward explaining the guarded nature of one of Israel’s most influential officials.
Ben-Aharon is the director general of the prime minister’s office, the equivalent of a U.S. President’s civilian chief of staff, and is Shamir’s senior adviser on foreign policy, according to his official biographical sketch. The Jerusalem Post newspaper once described him as “respected by many--and feared by many.”
In June, Ben-Aharon raised the ire of U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III by stiffening Israel’s terms for talks with Palestinians--after Baker thought he had gotten a written compromise formula out of Shamir himself. Shamir defended his aide and later took Ben-Aharon’s stand as his own, demanding an Israeli veto on the makeup of a Palestinian negotiating team.
During Baker’s arduous effort to get peace talks under way, Ben-Aharon has acted more and more as a public stand-in for Shamir, voicing the unspoken suspicions of his boss.
His latest warnings are against what he views as encroachments by the Palestine Liberation Organization into the peace process. Israel opposes any role for the PLO and has demanded that, when peace talks convene, the name PLO be uttered by no one.
Ben-Aharon complains that Baker, on successive visits to Jerusalem, has met with local affiliates of the PLO, thus giving the impression that the group and its leader, Yasser Arfat, play a central role in negotiations.
“The way of conduct of the United States is not the best,” Ben-Aharon told The Times in an interview at his office. “The PLO appointed delegates and the United States bowed without a murmur. Why accept the dictates of Arafat instead of building a democratic, independent and neutral-thinking and -acting delegation? Why conduct oneself in a manner that encourages a PLO role?”
In Ben-Aharon’s eyes, the PLO is taboo not only because of its terrorist history but also because it demands statehood in the Israeli-held West Bank and Gaza Strip, a quest that runs counter to Israel’s plans for granting the Palestinians who live there limited self-rule.
“The PLO is not interested in how garbage is picked up in the territories,” Ben-Aharon remarked. “Their agenda is different.”
Ben-Aharon, 59, first joined Shamir in 1981, when Shamir, then foreign minister, named him to manage his office. Ben-Aharon had already built a diplomatic career through stints as a political adviser in Israel’s embassy in Washington, as deputy consul in New York, and in Jerusalem as the Foreign Ministry’s director of research on Arab affairs.
During the 1970s, he labored in the office of Prime Minister Golda Meir and helped work out details of a Middle East peace conference in Geneva and subsequent military disengagement agreements with Syria. From the experience with Geneva, a conference which gave way to frenetic shuttle diplomacy by then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, Ben-Aharon drew the conclusion that multistate meetings get nowhere.
“In a gathering like Geneva, serious business cannot be done,” he said. “What is needed is serious, behind-the-scenes business. And someone who is a good, dependable negotiator.”
Ben-Aharon allows that only the United States is suitable for the role of go-between but suggests that the aggressive approach of the Bush Administration is inappropriate.
“The United States is going for a formula, a redeeming medicine to put everything in order,” he said. “It’s just not in the cards. There are too many complexities. Success would depend on mutual confidence, which we and the Arabs don’t have.”
The Arabs are still bent on Israel’s destruction, Ben-Aharon asserted. “I don’t believe they have given up their vendetta. They have shifted tactics and are making a bid for the heart, soul and mind of the United States--in order to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Israel,” Ben-Aharon said.
“If the illusion is created that the U.S. has made a switch and is disengaging from Israel,” he continued, “it will create unreal expectations.”
Rather than take on broad issues of peace, Ben-Aharon urged that Israel and Arab states should work on particular issues of interest: disarmament, economics, water. Only after years of mutual confidence-building can full peace be achieved, in Ben-Aharon’s opinion.
Ben-Aharon was born in Jerusalem, but his parents took him as an infant to Egypt where his father went looking for work. He returned to Israel at the age of 15, on the eve of Israel’s war for independence, and survived a nine-month Arab siege of Jewish sections of Jerusalem. The experience convinced him that Israel must maintain its exclusive control of the city at all costs.
He opposes further surrender of land won in the 1967 Middle East War--the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights--and regrets the precedent of abandoning the Sinai desert as part of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.
“We have to outlive the echoes of the peace treaty with Egypt. We gave them all the land and now the rest are demanding equal treatment. Out of the question!” he exclaimed.
“We haven’t yet succeeded in impressing on our Arab neighbors the logic of defeat on the battlefield. They cannot come to the table demanding the spoils of wars they started, as if they are the victims.”
Such a reversal is “typical of Arab conduct,” he concluded.
Sweeping references to “Arab mentality,” as well as use of terms like goyim (a dismissive word for non-Jews), and the “Diaspora thinking” of Jews abroad make Ben-Aharon one of the more quotable as well as controversial figures in Israel. And he doesn’t shy away from taking on the most sensitive issues of the moment.
Recently, he dispelled notions that new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are the work of renegades in government. They are, he said, part of Shamir’s program. He once called proposals to issue invitations to a peace conference ahead of Israel’s approval “crazy.”
As an observant Jew, Ben-Aharon bases some of his political views on religious beliefs, especially as regards the West Bank and Gaza. He once told an interviewer that land occupied by Israel is biblically promised and its future requires “no explanations or arguments.”
So why go to a peace conference which, under American guidelines, points to surrendering land? “Because we want progress,” he said. “We hope that the conference will lead to real, free, unfettered talks. It’s a test for the U.S. as well as a test for the Arabs.
“Let’s try. If we’re right in our suspicions, it will prove out soon enough.”