A vulnerable Barak pursues deal

Israel's foreign minister quits, but with parliament dissolved, and the public's support, Barak has time.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak's political opponents are sharpening their knives.

Since his return from the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Mr. Barak has faced two no-confidence votes, a call for early elections, and the surprise defeat of his presidential candidate, Shimon Peres, to an unknown conservative. Yesterday, the foreign minister resigned to protest Barak's reported bargaining positions at the Camp David talks.

His foes say the week's events sound a political death knell for Barak and his peace deal. But the obituaries may be premature. Analysts say that in many ways the outlook for Barak's political survival and for peace is as good as ever.

Knesset hiatus

Domestic politics may be as much to blame for Barak's woes as unhappiness with the offers he allegedly made to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. And while the clock may be ticking for Israel's prime minister, he has two aces left to play. One is a public that seems to favor peace; the other is a parliamentary summer break that began yesterday.

Barak will have the next few weeks to work on a peace deal with diminished political interference. Since his career may depend on delivering the goods, analysts say that he'll do everything it takes to forge an agreement.

"The prospects for peace are now somehow greater because the pressure on Barak is so much greater," says Leslie Susser, a Jerusalem-based commentator on domestic politics. "This is his only way out."

In this scenario, Barak would hammer out a peace deal with the Palestinians before the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, reconvenes in October. Because he is politically too weak to put together the coalition necessary to win parliamentary approval for his plan, he would immediately resign and call elections. This contest would serve as a referendum on whatever peace package Barak and Mr. Arafat manage to create.

"I believe the country will vote for Barak," says Charles Liebman, a political scientist at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University. "He can make the peace process happen."

One key, of course, is public opinion. Right now polls show Israelis generally favor a peace deal, despite the controversy caused by the positions Barak took at Camp David last month.

There, he and Arafat discussed the previously taboo subject of dividing Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital, and the issue of Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes when Israelis declared their state in 1948.

Today many Israelis, weary of living in a semi-permanent state of war, are ready to talk about these issues. "In negotiations you have to give something to get something," says Joseph Hanoch, a physician out shopping with his family at Jerusalem's mall.

This attitude represents a sea change in Israeli thinking, says Mr. Liebman. "It would have been unthinkable a few months ago," he says. "And most of the country supports [Barak's strategy] even though the Knesset doesn't."

This disconnect between public and parliament derives in part from an alliance between religious and rightist politicians that's been gaining strength.

Political muscle-flexing played a part, commentators say, in this week's various votes and motions. Conservative and right-wing parties suffered a setback when Barak trounced former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year. Now these parties have close to a majority in the Knesset and want to trumpet their resurgence.

Ethnicity might have played a part as well. The new president, Moshe Katsav, is a Sephardi, or a Jew of North African or Middle Eastern descent. As a group, Sephardic Jews have long felt disenfranchised by Jews of European descent who have traditionally held power and been politically left of center.

A religious party known as Shas represents Sephardic Jews, among others, and though Mr. Katsav isn't a member, he received its strong support in the presidential vote.

Katsav's victory over the Nobel-prize-winning Peres, who is of European descent, is being hailed as evidence that the Sephardim are coming into their own politically.

Finally, personal politics might have shaped events in the Knesset. The presidential vote was conducted by secret ballot and some members of Barak's One Israel party are thought to have voted for Katsav and not Peres. "Many people within his own party resent Barak. It was a way of humiliating him, getting back at him," says Liebman.

Risks for Barak

Indeed, Barak is known for being autocratic and something of a loner who believes he knows best. Those traits are likely to come into play in the coming weeks as he works at building an agreement with Arafat.

He faces two risks: First, that in his eagerness to make a deal, he makes greater concessions than the Israeli public is prepared to accept. And secondly in Arafat, who may not want to or be able to accept what Barak has to offer.

Mr. Susser, the political commentator, is cautiously optimistic. "[A peace deal] is very important to the Palestinians as well," he says. "There's a lot riding on this. Both sides have real long-term interests in peace, and a deal is very much a win-win situation for both of them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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