Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has lost a major political battle at home, but the loss may actually bolster prospects for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Mr. Barak was forced late Tuesday to call early elections, only 1-1/2 years after he won a landslide vote against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At press time yesterday, political leaders were meeting to set a date for early elections, which will probably be in May.
Barak is so politically weak now, that peace with the Palestinians may be his only hope for keeping his job. "If today the government ... reaches an agreement with the Palestinians, it will not only win, but win big in the elections," Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir told Israel Television.
So, the prime minister's political future now lies, to a great extent, in the hands of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
"If Arafat wills it, he can give Barak half a year of calm and an agreement that he can market to the voters," wrote Nachum Barnea in the Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper. "On the other hand, he could give Barak half a year of conflict and wipe him and his party off of the political map."
Palestinian leaders, for their part, are not willing to rush to Barak's rescue at any cost. They are making it clear, that if he wants an agreement, it will have to go far beyond the Camp David proposals he made in July, which they rejected, among other reasons, for failing to recognize Palestinian sovereignty in the walled Old City of Jerusalem, including at Islam's third-holiest shrine, al-Aqsa mosque.
"We have to see what Barak will do in the next few months," says Palestinian Authority Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Nabil Amr. "It all depends on whether he will offer the Palestinians something different than Camp David and respect their rights and international legality."
Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian negotiator, said he was still hopeful a peace accord can be reached before the Israeli elections and despite two months of violence that has killed more than 280 people, most of them Palestinians.
"Barak still has six months until the coming elections, and if he wants, he can stop his aggression and adopt a new policy that will enable him to go to his people with progress in the peace process," Mr. Shaath said.
Barak said on Tuesday that peace agreements with Israel's neighbors remain his top priority. But in a warning to the Palestinians, he said he will "not make peace at any price."
It was a breathtaking fall from grace for Barak, who gained office in May 1999, after a landslide victory over the Likud incumbent, Mr. Netanyahu. His victory inspired hopes of peace breakthroughs with the Palestinians and Syria, but they never materialized.
The bottom line
The leadership of Israel's most decorated soldier over the past two years has brought mixed results. He achieved a major success by withdrawing Israeli troops from southern Lebanon last spring - basically ending the last active war in the Mideast. But his inability to deliver on a peace with the Palestinians - and his willingness to concede more than his public wants - has caused his popularity to plummet at home.
Recent polls indicate that without a peace agreement in hand, Barak would be narrowly defeated by opposition leader Ariel Sharon, who is largely blamed for inciting the current uprising, and trounced by Netanyahu.
An opinion poll published last week in the Maariv newspaper showed that 48 percent of respondents would choose Netanyahu in a new election, while only 27 percent would vote for Barak, with 25 percent undecided. The poll was based on interviews with 593 people and had a margin of error of plus-minus 4.5 percent.
Will he, or won't he?
A pressing question that will undoubtedly have an impact on the peace equation is the political future of Netanyahu, who was cleared of corruption charges recently and has started to position himself for a comeback. Analysts say that the charismatic hard-liner would easily defeat Mr. Sharon in a primary for Likud leadership.
Netanyahu is currently on a lecture tour in the United States, the country where he acquired his sound bite savvy as a diplomat and rapid-fire, American-accented English as a student.
And it remains unclear whether Barak will also have to face challenges within his party for leadership.
Barak staked most of his energy and credibility on the peace negotiations and only belatedly took up a cause he had pledged would be a priority: secularist reforms to rein in Israel's religious establishment. The lingering image of his tenure is that of repeated Knesset (parliament) votes in which his government marched toward collapse, beginning in July when a key coalition partner, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, bolted to protest limited concessions he was offering to the Palestinians.
Now his government is winding down with Israel facing a costly and seemingly intractable Palestinian uprising and Barak caught in the middle between international criticism that he has used excessive force to quell it and right-wing broadsides that he has responded weakly.
"A peace agreement is his only remaining strategy, unless he decides to quit," said Hebrew University political scientist Yehezkel Dror.
But Mr. Dror believes that Barak will be hard-pressed to come up with a formula that satisfies the Palestinians while at the same time convinces the public that he has reached the best agreement possible.
And the opposition party, Likud, would be certain to flay any peace deal as an election ploy that sells out Israeli interests.
"The greatest danger is that Ehud Barak will try to use this window before the elections in order to establish facts that will impact on the future of the state. He has no majority in the Knesset or the nation for this," says Danny Naveh, a Likud member of Knesset.
Material from the wire services was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society