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Now It’s Barak’s Turn 

Israel’s new prime minister plays no favorites in pressing peace agenda

Wednesday, Aug 11 1999
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Photo by Eyal Warshavsky,
AP/Wide World

JERUSALEM — Israelis, like Angelenos, are highly dependent on their cars — which is where they wear their political opinions. It’s almost impossible to find bumper stickers for Bibi Netanyahu. It’s as if everyone voted for Ehud Barak. Even in Jerusalem, hardly a center-left stronghold, the bumper stickers abound — one suspects that some of them appeared after the vote count, rather than before, but okay. Everyone is for Ehud, for now.

Israelis are feeling good about themselves — and their prospects — as the new government lifts them out of the quicksand of the last regime. Ehud Barak’s government is only a month old, but there is profound optimism on the street in Israel about the completion of the peace processes between Israel and Syria, and with the Palestinians.

How long his honeymoon lasts will depend on how he plans his battles and when. Barak is clearly not a people person. The most decorated military hero in Israel suspects everyone. He has few allies or friends among his Cabinet, but relies on personal friends and family.

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This distrust of even his own cohorts has already caused him trouble. Within the first days of his government, Barak and his Labor Party were in serious need of a marriage counselor. When he saw fit to form the Cabinet by humiliating most of the Labor Party leaders, they retaliated by voting against his candidates for Knesset speaker and head of the important House Committee. In the end, after Barak had finished trading one sector off against the next, it became increasingly clear that he held one agenda above all others — peace with the Syrians, and with the Palestinians.

All of Barak’s powers will be tested in trying to get two peace tracks moving at once — not necessarily a bad move, maybe even a brilliant one, depending on how he maneuvers. But speed is of the essence. The recent death of Morocco’s King Hassan II points up the aging array of negotiating partners, most especially Arafat and Assad, not to mention the ticking clock of the U.S. presidential-election season.

Unfortunately, Barak seemed to get off to a bad start — unnecessarily — with Arafat, insisting on bypassing the Wye agreements already in place and moving immediately to final-status talks. "Trust me," Barak implied to Arafat. While that trust may be warranted, Arafat can’t trade his kingdom for the word of an Israeli prime minister. Too much trust eroded during the Bibi years, and Arafat needs something substantive. Even with the good will and the expectation among Palestinians that Barak and his unprecedentedly dovish government (seven ministers are Peace Now activists) will deliver, Arafat needs more than a handshake. It appears that finally, this week, things got back on track.

Arafat, who turned 70 last week, is still the key to stability in the region. But he is, by all accounts, weakened politically in addition to physically, and he has no apparent heir. Arafat’s hold on his population today is fragile — due to the halted peace process, corruption within the Palestinian regime, and the growing social and economic strength of Hamas — and Barak must be sensitive to that dynamic. As Ghassan Khattib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, asserts, "Arafat’s credibility is on the edge. He can’t take another agreement that is not respected . . .

"This atmosphere is creating fertile soil for Hamas," Khattib continues. "Many people in Israel and Palestine are happy that Hamas is not doing violent activity, but it has been successfully taking advantage of the peace process and bad performance of the Palestinian Authority to increase its own authority."

And the Palestinians — like some Israelis — are concerned that Barak appears unwilling to take on those Israelis who have settled in the disputed West Bank territories. Barak appears haunted by the lesson of Rabin, who was murdered by a pro-settler Israeli. Consequently, many believe he is running scared of upsetting the settlers and provoking a domestic civil war.

But soft-pedaling the settlements can’t bring about the secure peace Barak desires, if for no other reason than his need to offer something substantial to Arafat. Besides, it’s unlikely that anything Barak does will, in the end, appease the settlers. As Amiram Goldblum, the Peace Now leader who oversees the peace movement’s Settlement Watch, observes: "The settlers elected a new, seemingly more moderate, leadership . . . but even so have made clear they would tolerate no succumbing to any government attempt to dismantle settlements."

Barak also has to be careful not to pursue the peace in the same manner he negotiated his own government into being. Playing the Syrians against the Palestinians, as he did party against party — and politician against politician — could prove disastrous. If he bullies Arafat, or even Assad, that could hurt him in the final peace agreements. A more promising strategy would be to keep all the key pieces in motion. Says Ghassan Khattib, "Both Assad and Arafat are falling into the track game. How can they move fastest?"

In addition to the eroded peace process Barak inherited from Netanyahu, he also took charge of an Israel on the fast track to complete privatization in all spheres of civic life. Ironically, Barak, the first Israeli prime minister to be born on a kibbutz, will probably see this process to completion. Last week, he even announced that he plans to disband the Labor Party, against the wishes of the party’s Knesset faction.

Yet with Israel’s increasing privatization comes an atmosphere of domestic tribalism (Russians against Moroccans, secular against religious), with Israel’s once rich civic culture disappearing.

Nissim Calderon, a leading Israeli intellectual, observes, "We are coming from a strongly collective society with a network of organizations for housing, education, cooperative supermarkets, kibbutzim, strong trade unions — even our publishing houses were owned by collectives. Leadership was always considered a joke in Israel. Now, the whole system has collapsed and a consequence is a crazy belief . . . that Napoleon will save us. The new [electoral] law was believed to give us a strong prime minister, not dependent on parties. What we got was a weak prime minister dependent on 20 parties."

The mood in the country favors privatization and individual initiative — even the kibbutzim are hiring yuppie management consultants to revamp what was once the great socialist experiment — and Barak is going along. The lone Labor Party social-democratic voice, Shlomo Ben-Ami, was offered the job of Minister of Internal Security, not finance. The Histadrut trade-union federation, once the glue that held the country together, is literally bankrupt. They still haven’t paid their 1,500 staff members’ June salaries, and they are nonexistent in the burgeoning economic sectors such as high tech.

But the hard political fact is that Barak must deliver some measure of social justice in the domestic sphere to succeed with his peace initiatives — Israel’s version of a peace dividend. Netanyahu left 200,000 unemployed, a wide gap between rich and poor, and an increasing rift between the elite of Israel, who are of Ashkenazic or Western European background, and the Oriental Jews of North African descent. One reason the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party gained 17 seats in the Knesset was due to the party’s support for kindergarten and after-school programs for the poor, and its leadership on behalf of the poorest sector among Israeli Jews, those of Moroccan descent.

Many of these same voters could lose jobs when low-wage industry, as part of the peace process, moves from Israel to the West Bank and Jordan. To break the Shas stronghold on the Israeli body politic, Barak has to offer more social services, and offer retraining and education for the poorest Israelis in an economy that is increasingly geared to high tech. In this regard, he should recall Shimon Peres’ failure; Peres never succeeded in making the majority of Israelis see the economic or security benefits of the peace process.

Plus, Barak has committed himself to placing final peace proposals to public referenda. If he does, he will be acutely dependent on the very Labor Party he wants to dismantle, plus the Peace Now Movement, to mobilize against the settlers and the Likud Party (which, in its current tattered state, can create problems for Barak) in the Golan Heights and on the West Bank. Even in the age of individualism, the Israeli public will have the final collective say.

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