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May 14, 2003

Benny Elon's long, strange trip

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Benny Elon, Israel's minister of tourism, has a handshake as soft as butter. He is built like Santa. His voice is so gentle that you need to lean forward to catch everything he says. It is tough to reconcile the man with his reputation as one of the least tractable and most radically right of Israel's political leaders. He travels with two armed bodyguards and starts visibly at loud noises. His caution is understandable: Elon, who is also a rabbi, assumed leadership of Israel's Moledet Party in 2001 after the previous leader, Moledet founder Rechavam Zeevi, was assassinated. He and his party are committed to an Israel that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, an outcome that Elon believes is both promised by God and made inevitable by realpolitik. It hinges, however, on a radical and polarizing notion -- that Palestinians can and should be "transferred" out of Israel.

"The Palestinian Arabs already have a state," says Elon. "It's Jordan. Another state west of the Jordan River is a three-state solution, not a two-state solution. It would be a disaster for Israel, and it would be a disaster for the Palestinians."

Last week, only days after the Bush administration's road map for peace in the Middle East was released -- which calls for a Palestinian state in what most of the world considers the "occupied territories," but which Elon, the Israeli right-wing and significant elements of the U.S. Congress considers part of biblical "Eretz Israel" -- Elon traveled to Washington to present a plan of his own. It is simple: Give Palestinians a state by granting them Jordanian citizenship. Solve the Palestinian problem by declaring there will be no separate Palestinian state at all. Make the West Bank and Gaza a part of Israel -- or rather, acknowledge what Elon already considers to be fact. The plan requires the "transfer" of Palestinians from Israel to Jordan, which Elon insists would be voluntary. But those who refused to transfer, under Elon's plan, would be considered foreign nationals and denied Israeli citizenship.

Elon found sympathetic listeners in the United States, both on Capitol Hill, where he met tirelessly with U.S. senators and representatives of both parties and in the evangelical Christian community, where he has gained the support of lobbying groups such as the Christian Coalition and Gary Bauer's American Values. While the official purpose of Elon's visit last week was to promote Israeli tourism, he also found time to discuss his comparatively radical solution to the Palestinian question.