In Mideast, patience wears thin

One year after his landslide victory, Ehud Barak's peace plans are unraveling and his approval rates are dropping.

It was only one year ago today that Ehud Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier, was overwhelmingly elected to lead Israel to peace with its Arab neighbors.

But he so far has been unable to live up to the towering expectations he raised. Little has gone right with his foreign agenda. And domestically, surveys show his approval rating has fallen to below 40 percent. One poll even shows him only one point ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing incumbent he trounced last year.

Over the past two days, Israelis and Palestinians fought their first gun-battles in nearly four years; Barak's coalition partners threatened to abandon him over his plans to turn over three villages outside Jerusalem to Palestinians; and the chief Palestinian negotiator for final peace talks quit. The peace deal with Syria also seems unattainable.

"I think these clashes are a danger, and this coalition crisis is a very serious problem for Barak," says Barry Rubin, at the Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "If it's this hard to get people to accept the transfer of a couple of villages, how hard will it be at a later stage when substantial concessions are necessary?"

Barak was elected on a platform that championed a revival of the peace tracks that had stalled under Mr. Netanyahu. He promised that a clear peace with Israel's neighbors - primarily the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon - would help jump-start Israel's sluggish economy.

One of the complications, experts here say, is that Barak prefers things be done incognito, with as little media exposure as possible, and is described by those who have worked closely with him as a man who believes that if only everyone would step aside and let him get down to business, he'll engineer swift, smart peace deals with the Arab world. .

But earlier this week, things began to unravel, as a leak revealed the existence of ongoing secret Israeli-Palestinian talks in Sweden, which compounds a sense that Barak had been hoping to broker a final peace deal, which was part of his election manifesto.

The eruption of the most deadly Palestinian-Israeli clashes in more than four years across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a large Israeli right-wing protest in Jerusalem, show that with much of the conflict still unsolved, Barak's plans are in trouble.

The violence coincided with the 52nd anniversary of what Palestinians call al-Nakba, the national day of mourning marking Israel's creation in 1948. At least three Palestinians were killed, and more than 300 wounded in the clashes. Some 15 Israeli soldiers were hurt.

Clinton administration officials, taken off-guard by the violence that provided an unpleasant welcome mat for US Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross May 16, suggested that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat still sees the threat of disturbances as an important means to providing Israel with periodic incentives to territorial compromise.

"Al-Nakba is a sort of a 'must-do' demonstration for the Palestinians, a show of the ability to deliver street anger if their demands aren't met," says a US official involved in the peace talks. "It's all about what the Israelis will give and what the Palestinians will take, and they see no other action they can take to get more."

Barak, for his part, has made several gestures to convince Palestinians that he is sincere. He opened a long-awaited safe passage route between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, carried out some minor troop redeployments, and released some Palestinian prisoners.

But about 1,600 Palestinians still remain in Israeli jails, and few Palestinians have seen any palpable gains in their quest for more autonomy in Barak's year in office. Palestinian living standards have in fact decreased dramatically since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993, according to a study just released by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, a New York-based human rights group.

In another gesture, the Israeli Cabinet on May 15 approved Barak's plan to transfer the villages of Abu Dis, Eizariyeh, and Sawahreh to full Palestinian control in a move Barak said was necessary to avoid "stalemate and deterioration" in peacemaking.

However, the timing of the announcement, although a confidence-building measure to the Palestinians, is a grave violation to Israeli hard-liners of the quid pro quo mantra repeated by Netanyahu.

And although Barak came to office with a promise to unite the nation, Israelis remain acutely divided over the land-for-peace project. At a demonstration that packed Jerusalem's Zion Square the night of May 15, right-wingers decried Barak's planned handover of the three villages as a move that will give the Palestinians a foothold in Jerusalem and access to its holy shrines.

"When they turn the guns we gave them on us, they don't deserve to get more," says Moshe Rand, a student at a protest attended by approximately 70,000 demonstrators. "These villages are close to Jerusalem, and they'll use them as a base to attack us. I'm surprised that Barak, who fought against terrorism his whole life, would agree to this."

Barak's initial preference to leave negotiations with the Palestinians in screen-saver mode while he clicked on what seemed a more attractive program - clinching a peace deal with Syria - proved to be time spent waiting for a less-than-anxious partner in Damascus while Palestinian anger simmered, and unmet deadlines passed.

"His decision to put most of his energy into Syria means now we've wasted time, even if it was out of his desire to make peace," says Professor Rubin.

On the domestic front, analysts are concerned that Barak could find himself in a situation where he would be forced to rule without a majority in parliament.

If the Shas party quits Barak's government, says Hebrew University political scientist Ehud Sprinzak, Barak will no longer be able to wear the mantle of being "the prime minister of everyone" as he promised in his campaign a year ago.

For Shas, representing Jews with Mideast origins, the crisis is a time to flex its muscles as the largest bloc in Barak's coalition and press for more funds for its network of religious schools. But two other parties in the coalition, key pro-peace partners, say they will quit if Barak gives in to Shas's extortionist tactics.

Running alongside are a host of internal economic gripes, including plans by Israel's largest labor union to hold a general strike in two weeks to protest tax-reform proposals, Barak is finding his game plan for peace and prosperity getting sidetracked by everything from Palestinian prisoners to pothole politics.

"As long as these parties were in the government, he could say that he represented both sides of the political spectrum," says Mr. Sprinzak. "This decision is going to weaken that image and make this government seem a lot more leftist. This nation is divided, and we thought some sort of a new consensus could be built."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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