Ehud Barak's dilemma

May 23, 1999|By Tom Teepen

THE Israeli elections produced a strong personal mandate for Ehud Barak as prime minister -- and a stinging rejection of the policies and machinations of Benjamin Netanyahu -- but they settled none of the divisions in Israeli society and may even have exacerbated a few.

Mr. Barak has no easy tasks ahead of him in working up the unity he wishes for within Israel or in carrying out what he hopes will be the end game in the Middle East peace process. There are forces within and outside the country committed to make each challenge difficult, and impossible if they can.

Mr. Barak's strong personal showing did not translate in a comparable mandate for his Labor Party or its close allies in the Knesset. There, Mr. Barak will have to cobble together a working coalition from fractious smaller parties, some of them at such cultural and political odds they would refuse to share power with one another.

Can Mr. Barak have his unity without the participation of Shas? The election made the Orthodox religious party, with its strongly Sephardic constituency, Israel's third largest, but Mr. Barak's own emphatically secular constituency wants to end the religious privileges of the Orthodox that Shas means to entrench.

A coalition of convenience, then, with Mr. Netanyahu's Likud? That would surely slow the peace process that the victor means to reinvigorate. It might leave any final settlement vulnerable to veto by a party that, like its recently unhorsed leader, has never seemed to want more from peace than a wary and truculent absence of war. Shas is less peace-averse.

At the fringes, Mr. Barak can expect the settler movement to attempt pre-emptive poaching on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and dare him to balk them. Indeed, some moves may come before he can form a government.

The more ideologically coherent the coalition Mr. Barak can form, the faster he can move both on domestic issues (education reform, economic development) and in negotiations with Palestinians. But the broader the coalition -- if it holds -- the more solid the support for the results. A dilemma.

Don't expect the Palestinian Authority or its rivals to make any of this easy for the new government. Hezbollah cheered the election of a peace-minded candidate by shelling northern Israel. The next day an anti-Arafat faction assassinated an Arafat ally in Lebanon. And the authority itself has lately tried, crazily, to revive the long-since mooted U.N. Resolution 181 of 1947, which effectively would dismantle the current Israel. Fat chance.

Mr. Barak can brighten the peace atmosphere quickly -- restraining West Bank settlement, letting the development of a Gaza port resume, clearing the way for Palestinian telecom installations and carrying through the Wye River agreements.

But as the hurrahing over the election fades, it is clear that the optimism it legitimately excited has very difficult political and policy issues to work through on the way to the peaceable long-range outcomes, domestically and regionally, that most Israeli voters appear to want.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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