If Barak builds peace, can he sell it?

As a Sept. 13 peace-deal deadline looms, Barak fights for political survival.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's recent political troubles underscore a lingering worry: How will he win parliamentary approval for any peace agreement he achieves with the Palestinians?

The short answer is: No one knows. But it seems that Mr. Barak and his advisers are taking a gamble that, if they build a peace, the voters will come to their side.

While many observers of Israeli politics praise Barak for his military record, his demonstrated desire to bring peace, and his success in withdrawing Israeli forces from Lebanon this year, they are also in creasingly worried about his political skills. "His ability to inspire - either in a retail or a wholesale way - is still unproven a year into office," says Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the government-backed US Institute of Peace in Washington.

"He's clearly in very deep trouble," says Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. "The weakness of his government and governing ability has become apparent more quickly than anyone expected."

But Shlomo Ben Ami, Israel's acting foreign minister and a top negotiator, says he and other Barak supporters "will fight from house to house to explain our position" if the prime minister reaches a peace agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Barak has promised to put a peace deal to Israeli voters in a referendum, and he is betting that he can win sufficient public support to overpower his increasingly powerful opposition in the parliament, or Knesset. Based on historical precedent, that body will have to ratify the deal.

Meanwhile, one could be forgiven for thinking that the prime minister is standing at the edge of a crumbling cliff. His coalition government unraveled two months ago, so he has too few supporters in the parliament to pass legislation, though he has survived several no-confidence measures. In the past week, two of his most senior staff members have quit, both making critical comments about disarray in the prime minister's office.

Over the weekend he performed a political about-face, proposing a series of legislative measures that appeal to secular-minded Israelis, even though he has been relying on the support of an ardently religious party that opposes such steps.

Many analysts here say elections could occur within the next few months, which may explain why Barak has decided to pursue "civil reforms," including the passage of a constitution and new laws on marriage and national service.

Where he once felt it was worth alienating secular Israelis in order to obtain the parliamentary support of the religious Shas party, the prime minister apparently has changed his mind. The reforms Barak is proposing would serve the cause of those who want to see Israel evolve into a fully democratic and essentially secular state, rather than one that gives Jews rights not available to others.

This tension has existed since Israel's founding and is one reason why the country has no formal constitution. Establishing a bill of rights for all citizens would call into question the benefits that some Israelis obtain because of their religious affiliation.

Even though there is universal conscription to the armed forces, for example, Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews receive exemptions. Barak is proposing a national-service program that would end those exemptions.

He risks bitter opposition from the religious Shas party, which represents many ultra-Orthodox voters, and which was once a member of Barak's coalition. At that time, Barak was willing to accede to Shas's demands in the hope of winning its support for a peace deal.

His turnaround suggests to some observers that Barak is giving up on a breakthrough with the Palestinians. Or he may be trying to create the impression that he is losing heart to force the other side to move toward his positions in the peace talks.

Whether Israeli and Palestinian officials are expanding on their work at Camp David is, for the moment, hard to measure. Israeli and Palestinian leaders have globe-trotted extensively in recent weeks, trying to line up international support for their positions. Their talks with each other, however, don't seem to be producing much more than statements encouraging the other side to make concessions.

Dennis Ross, the State Department's top Mideast negotiator, arrived in the region a week ago, but he has been dividing time between meeting presidents and prime ministers and vacationing with his family.

Egypt appears to have become more active as a mediator, but Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may be trying to save face following US criticism that he failed to do much during the Camp David talks.

At any rate, time is short. The Palestinians may proceed with a plan to declare an independent state on Sept. 13, a move that would draw Israeli reprisals and would likely exacerbate tensions.

As acting Foreign Minister Ben Ami puts it: "The political calendar is very tight. Barak is not eternal. Arafat is not eternal. Even [President] Clinton is not eternal."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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