Barak's gamble

Print edition : December 23, 2001

Unless the Israelis and Palestinians can agree on the outlines of a final agreement by February 6, the likely date for elections in Israel, the very future of West Asia can become unpredictable.

IF there was one thing predictable about the course that the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis followed in the past seven years, it was that the countless deadlines that had been set for the various stages would be missed. Circumstan ces have now so conspired as to set a deadline which, if missed, will end the negotiations altogether. Unless the two sides can agree on the outlines of a final and comprehensive agreement by February 6, the likely date for elections in Israel, the very future of West Asia can become unpredictable.

Eighteen months ago Ehud Barak won the post of Israel's Prime Minister with a handsome margin over his rival Benjamin Netanyahu on the promise that he would achieve a final peace with the Palestinians and thereby guarantee security for Israeli citizens. He also had to determine which of the parties in Parliament he would invite on board his Cabinet. There was real hope, especially after the cynicism and manipulative tendencies that Netanyahu had displayed during his tenure, that Barak would move sincere ly towards an agreement with the Palestinians.

The Israeli police in action against Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem's Old City on December 8.-LEFTERIS PITARAKIS / AP

In the event Barak chose a mixed Cabinet. This was not bad in itself since it was acknowledged that a final agreement with the Palestinians would be more soundly set if it was made by a Cabinet that represented both the right and the left wings in Israel i politics. Barak outlined his approach to the negotiations only piecemeal and, according to his many critics, after consulting none but a close circle of advisors. His method of functioning plus his need to keep the balance between the diverse forces in his Cabinet meant that Barak took a zigzag course in his dealings with the Palestinians. In time many people in Israel began to see Barak as no less cynical and manipulative than Netanyahu, and the erosion of trust was so severe that by the middle of th is year little more than a quarter of the parliamentarians still backed the Prime Minister.

Barak tried to shore up his parliamentary support and keep himself in office by inviting the Opposition Likud to join him in a national unity government. This effort ultimately led nowhere since the price that Ariel Sharon, the Likud's leader in Parliame nt, demanded was a humiliating one - that Barak hand over a virtual veto power over peacemaking. But Barak's dalliance with Sharon, his government's failure to implement the several interim measures and its attempt to shift the blame for the relapses in peace-making onto the Palestinians had eroded the faith that the Arabs had initially placed in him. The trust seems to have all but collapsed after Barak let his troops use excessive force in dealing with the Palestinian uprising, which has been raging s ince September 28. Today the Arabs argue, with a great measure of plausibility, that it really does not matter to them whether Barak or Netanyahu is the leader of Israel.

It appears probable that Israeli voters will have to choose between Barak and Netanyahu as the man who will lead them to peace or further confrontation. A bill intended to dissolve Parliament (Knesset) and pave the way for fresh elections had already bee n passed with an overwhelming majority at the first reading. Although the bill had to clear two more readings, Barak appeared to have read the writing on the wall and his party was poised to agree to the dissolution of Parliament. Then suddenly, on Decem ber 9, Barak announced that he would resign his post and seek a fresh mandate in special elections for the prime ministership.

This was a transparent attempt to keep Netanyahu off the ticket for the prime ministerial election. Under Israel's convoluted law, voters cast separate ballots for the Prime Minister and for the party lists for the Knesset. If a sitting Prime Minister re signs, then it is not necessary that the Knesset should also be dissolved simultaneously. Should the Prime Minister resign, then only a sitting member of the Knesset can challenge him in the special election. Netanyahu had resigned his Knesset seat (whic h he had won as a candidate on the Likud list) in the face of his resounding defeat in the prime ministerial part of the 1999 election. By resigning his post and thereby opting for the special election route Barak sought to ensure that he would face Arie l Sharon (with whom he is running neck and neck in opinion polls) rather than Netanyahu (who has a two-digit lead in the polls).

However, the bill for the dissolution of the Knesset is still pending. Even Barak seemed to have recognised that his attempt to ensure that only the special election, and not the general election to the Knesset and for the prime ministership, would take place would prove a failure. If the Knesset is dissolved, Netanyahu not only can get himself onto the Likud list for Parliament but vie for the prime ministership. Netanyahu does face the technical difficulty of having to edge out Sharon as the Likud's c andidate for the prime ministership, but given his strength in his party's central committee that should not be a problem.

Taking into consideration Netan-yahu's ideological background, his political history and his approach to the Arabs as a race, the Palestinian claim that there is little to distinguish between him and Barak appears rhetorical to a large degree. Netanyahu has no interest in making a peace with the Palestinians on any terms other than his own, and that means no peace at all. Given the current mood in Israel he is bound to pander to the sentiment that Israel cannot afford to make any "concessions" to the Pa lestinians because they would never make peace with Israel but would only use whatever they obtain to further jeopardise Israel's security. Barak, besides taking positions that are more conciliatory as well as realistic on specific issues, has tried to m ake his people make an ideological breakthrough. He has said that Israelis must shed their sense of being under constant siege and begin to believe that they can live at peace with their neighbours.

In fact Barak can stand on no other platform other than the willingness to make the peace. Netanyahu, or even Sharon, would have a lock-hold on the alternative approach that vigilant strength is the only basis on which Israel can deal with the Palestinia ns. Barak has no choice but champion the opposite view that the security that Israelis crave can only be wrought with a comprehensive deal that ensures the end of the conflict between them and Palestinians. Although a lot of terrible things have happened in the past three months, this approach can still be electorally viable if Barak can achieve the outlines of a peace-deal that he can present before his people.

Politically, though not economically and certainly not in respect of the tactical situation on the ground, the Palestinians are in a sounder position to press for the deal they desire. Over the three months of the Intifada the Palestinians have consolida ted and made absolutely clear their position. They have abandoned the incremental approach envisaged in the Oslo-designed processes and made it clear that they will settle for nothing less than the complete end of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem , the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; the establishment of an independent Palestinian state; and at least the acknowledgement of the principle that the refugees must be allowed to return.

In any fair and impartial analysis the only basis on which a comprehensive and lasting peace can be made is the one set down by the Palestinians. For all the undiluted support that Israel gets from the United States, it will be very difficult for Israel to establish itself firmly in the region or find ready acceptance in the world if it does not give justice to the Palestinians. Barak can only improve his chances for re-election and save his country from a prolonged period of confrontation with the Arab s if he accepts the validity of the Palestinian demands and moves towards fulfilling them.

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