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”.

The strange voyage of Avraham Burg
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)