Blazer boy spurns Israel's blue-rinse benefactors

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'TO SPEAK about Zionism is to speak about normalcy. Israel should be a normal state. That was the dream of the fathers of Zionism.' The bespectacled man in the dark suit, standing at the podium of a Jerusalem conference room, looked strikingly 'normal' and out of place here, among the rows of glinting pearls and ruby lips.

Yossi Beilin, Israel's deputy Foreign Minister and so-called 'blazer boy', had come to talk to the 'blue-rinse girls' from the American Zionist fund-raising body, Hadassah.

Israel no longer needed its money, was his message. The new peace agreement showed that the country's 'dream to survive' had been achieved and it must now stand on its own feet. As he spoke, rows of ample bosoms heaved, angered at such ungrateful words.

Since the founding of the state, the relationship between the Jews living in the diaspora and those in Israel has been shored up by huge donations. 'Israel will never be normal. It has special history,' intoned Arlene Lungen. 'We don't offer charity. We raise money to help Israel exist.'

Questioning the need for Jewish charity is only Mr Beilin's latest challenge to traditional Israeli political discourse. For many years he was damned by the political mainstream for proposing talks with the 'enemy', the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Now that peace is here - as he believes - he is crossing new political frontiers, challenging Israel's institutions and calling for separation of religion and state. Israel should stop worrying about itself and become 'a nation in the service of others', he says.

One American Jewish leader has described him as a 'slime-ball'. To Israel's old guard, he is over-dressed and over-educated, and his idea of 'normalcy' is heresy. But for all the contempt he provokes, nobody can ignore Mr Beilin. Once the enfant terrible on the fringes of Israeli politics, he is fast becoming its most influential thinker. Even Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's 71-year-old Prime Minister, who despises him, listened to the blazer boy in September and talked to the PLO.

It takes a tough hide to challenge the consensus in Israel. Born in 1948 - the year the state was founded - Mr Beilin is the son of East European immigrants, brought up in a fiercely traditional middle-class family. With intellectual confidence and the determination of any kibbutznik, he was able to question the central tenet of Israeli life: that security should be the overwhelming priority.

'Most people accepted it because it was the way they were educated. It was so easy to unite the people around security. It was a wonderful excuse not to deal with other problems like the haves and the have nots,' he says.

After the 1967 war, when he served as an army signaller on the Golan Heights, the 19-year-old Beilin was engulfed, like most Israelis, in the euphoria of victory. It was Israel's near defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur War that hardened his determination to forge political change.

Golda Meir, then prime minister, had 'deceived' the country into believing that the territories seized in 1967 made Israel into a regional superpower, protecting her from attack. The 1973 war, he says, 'proved that the victory of '67 was our biggest curse'.

After 1973, Mr Beilin began to challenge the establishment from within the governing Labour Party. He was not alone. Around him formed a Fabian Society-style group, including other young 'doves' such as Chaim Ramon, Yael Dayan and Avraham Burg. Under the rule of the right-wing Likud, such voices were buried. But in 1992, when Labour was re-elected, this group won grassroots support. 'I would characterise them as third-generation Ashkenazi, Zionist elite,' says Yoav Peled, professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, describing the 'normal' Israelis who may follow the Beilin clique. 'Their bywords are peace, prosperity and privatisation.'

These Israelis readily admit that statistically they are still 'abnormal'. They are probably in the top 20 per cent earning bracket. Mainly secular, they have little in common with the 60 per cent of Israelis who still believe that they are the 'chosen people'. This group also admits to being part of Israel's emerging 'me generation'. 'My generation is able to say first me and then the nation,' says diplomat Alon Bar. But they see themselves as Zionists, or 'post-Zionists'.

Mr Beilin says his ideals are little different from those of his forefathers. His vision of a 'normal' Israel is a peace-loving society, which attracts immigrants not as a potential shelter but because of its way of life. In future, Israeli guns will be wielded only to protect others.

But first the occupation has to go, Mr Beilin says. 'The occupation was much against the Zionist dream, which was the dream of normalisation. For so many years the Jews lived in abnormal situations, and they needed a state for themselves, so that they were normal and not occupied by others, or occupying others.'

Mr Beilin's Israel will be Middle Eastern only in location, looking for everything else to Western Europe. Israel should be like a Nordic country, with its forces taking part in UN peace-keeping. 'What Beilin sees is a kind of Scandinavia without alchohol,' says Avishai Margalit, a political commentator and philosophy professor.

Mr Beilin points out that Israel already has a Western standard of living. Inequality is 'normal' - and he has warned that Israelis will have to get used to European-style unemployment.

If his style is any yardstick, the new Israeli leadership will be just as hard-working as its forefathers, but more earnest and image-conscious. And its members will look like European Commission bureaucrats rather than swashbuckling old soldiers.

(Photograph omitted)