For Israel's Barak, a testing time

A string of crises over the past month have taken some shine off Israel's prime minister and most-decorated soldier.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak carries in his wallet a small card listing the social pledges that his "One Israel party" handed out during the elections. He checks it regularly.

But after nine months almost completely dedicated to fast-track peace negotiations he announced shortly after being sworn in, he has a long way to go. In fact, in recent days, little has gone right with Mr. Barak's domestic or foreign agendas.

*The Israelis and Palestinians were to come up with the broad outlines of a final peace agreement by Feb. 13, but Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat stormed out of a joint photo opportunity and called off the negotiations.

*Syrian President Hafez al-Assad decided to give the next round of peace talks a pass. Then, fighting between Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas along Israel's border with Lebanon escalated. Israeli warplanes bombed suspected guerrilla positions in south Lebanon again yesterday, in retaliation for two weeks of Hizbullah raids that killed one senior Israeli-backed Southern Lebanese Army soldier, six Israeli soldiers, and wounded a dozen others.

*A criminal investigation may soon be opened into Barak's party financing practices, and his poll ratings are plummeting.

*The association of disabled persons, claiming the government had forsaken them and their interests, began an anti-Barak campaign, sending wheelchair-bound demonstrators to block the entrance to the prime minister's office in Jerusalem. Israeli Arabs, calling for equality, could not get near the entrance to the office so they staged a mass protest across the street - which then turned violent. And the country's teachers, calling for an increase in wages, went on a general two-week strike and shut down all classrooms.

"There is no doubt that Barak has had a very bad month, with nothing going as easily as he had thought," says Mark Heller, a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv Jaffee Center. "But these things go in cycles, and he will probably come out on top."

In fact, there have often been delays in the peace talks in the past. And US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is sending negotiator Dennis Ross to the region next week to help jump-start the talks.

"It is always the case that before a breakthrough, there is a breakdown," says Nawaf Massallah, an Arab-Israeli who is deputy foreign minister. "Assad, in this case, is playing tough to please his audience, and we, in retaliating, are trying to prove to our people that we're just as tough."

But for families huddled at home with their bored kids complaining about the winter chill and zapping between talk shows featuring pundits pontificating on the subject of party finance transgressions and news features about fallen soldiers - Barak's trademark "trust me" sly-smile-and-wink routine seemed to have lost much of its appeal.

The weekend polls here show that 40 percent of the population is in favor of early elections, and that close to half of the population does not find the prime minister to be trustworthy, does not believe he can lead the country properly, and does not think he can keep his promises. The honeymoon, so it is said, is officially over.

"Barak has spent the first nine months in office with the peace process as his priority and has neglected the social agenda, which he focused on during his election campaign," says Joel Peters, professor of political science at Beer Sheva's Ben Gurion University. "He believed he would be able to complete peace treaties with Syria and Palestinians by the summer and then re-focus on the social and economic agenda." The problem now, continues Peters, is that with no agreements in sight he has very little to show.

Barak himself, swear his aides, is not worried. The most decorated soldier in Israel's history does not fluster easily.

"This government is like a ship at sea," says the prime minister, who is also the defense minister. "It might swerve off course a bit here and a bit there, but we know exactly where we are heading."

Indeed, the young politician who doesn't necessarily consult his ministers, and often ignores the media, seems to believe he can pull it together by himself.

Barak has hired a top lawyer and claims he will prove that the party financing was all done legally. He asserts the Palestinians will return to the talks "within a matter of days," and he has sent tough messages to the Syrians warning them they had better rein in the Hizbullah and get back to the negotiating table "before it is too late."

"A breakthrough in the peace process is the only thing that can rescue Barak from his political woes at this point," says Aluf Benn, diplomatic correspondent for the influential liberal daily Haaretz. "But at the same time, Barak's weak position internally is a major obstacle, which prevents him from being able to make the necessary concessions that are prerequisite for peace with the Palestinians or the Syrians."

Barak says he has no intention of reneging on even one of his pledges - he will not disappoint the students waiting for grants, the sick waiting for better Medicare, or the new immigrants waiting for more attention. He asks that everyone wait before judging him and be patient as he makes peace. All he wants, says Barak, is for everyone else to sit back, stop scrutinizing his ship from up close, and just bide time marking his overall progress.

The prime minister, retort his critics, really has a great deal of hubris. "Barak's short-term plan," goes the joke making the rounds at cocktail parties, "is to put everyone to sleep, wake them up in five months, show them the agreements he has reached, and stand for the applause."

The long-term plan, accordingly, "is for everyone to keep sleeping for four years, let him get everything done, and then wake up in time to admire his accomplishments and vote for him next time round."

The problem now, says Richard Peres, one of Barak's most important campaigners during the elections who has since distanced himself from the prime minister, is that - with problems bombarding the government from left and right field - the racket is so loud that no one can even take a short nap.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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