By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Eyal Warshavsky,
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.
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.