Israel realigns to push for peace

Prime minster-elect forms coalition to revive Mideast talks

July 01, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- After more than 40 days and 40 nights of marathon negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak yesterday succeeded in forming a diverse government with a comfortable enough parliamentary majority to revive the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process.

Barak, the self-proclaimed "prime minister of everyone," informed the acting speaker of Israel's parliament that he would present his government next week; he is required to do so by July 9.

Once the Knesset approves Barak's appointments, the 57-year-old former military chief of staff will begin his 4-year term with an unusually comfortable majority in the 120-member parliament, eight more than the required 61. That's an advantage enjoyed neither by outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Barak's mentor, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"It's actually stronger than it even looks because in addition to the 69, he has 15 to 20 more votes that he can count on depending on the issue," said Barry Rubin, an Israeli political analyst. "Secondly, he doesn't have to worry about people walking out [on him] -- he has parties outside the government that support him."

Israel's May 17 election was called after members of Netanyahu's coalition, upset by the Wye peace accords, nearly brought down the government. The Wye pact, signed in Washington last fall, obligated Israel to implement previous commitments to cede West Bank land to the Palestinians.

Barak's coalition gives him strong support to revive the peace process, which came to a virtual halt under Netanyahu, and to negotiate an end to Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon. It also exceeds Barak's goal of forming a broad-based coalition; the new government will include the ultra-religious and secular, supporters of the peace process and those who refuse to relinquish land to the Palestinians, Jews of European descent and immigrants from North Africa and Arab countries.

"It's amazing," added Rubin, of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Illan University. "Who would have thought not one, not two, but three religious parties would be in?"

Shas completes coalition

Since his election victory, Barak has been holding day and night sessions with the 15 parties elected to parliament. The reports of his meetings often read like a tabloid clip of Who's In and Who's Out. And they changed weekly.

Barak clinched the votes he needed yesterday when the 17 Knesset members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party initialed an agreement with the prime minister-elect. Barak brought Shas into the government even though its rabbis and political leaders backed Netanyahu in his re-election bid.

He did it without reneging on a campaign pledge to strip Shas of its control of the influential Interior Ministry. As part of its deal, Shas will control the Religious Affairs Ministry and several social-welfare agencies. The Russian immigrant party head, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, will be the interior minister.

"We're going to be the leading party on social issues and take care of the poor strata of society," Shas leader Eli Yishai said of the party's agreement with Barak.

Likud left out

Barak's preference for Shas over Netanyahu's Likud bloc, which he also talked with about joining the government, indicates that he wants to concentrate on the Middle East peace process and Israel's relationships in the Arab world before tackling the religious-secular conflicts that divide the country.

The Likud, led now by Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, wanted assurances from Barak that he would carry out settlement activity in territory whose sovereignty is a matter of heated dispute between Israel and the Palestinians -- especially around Jerusalem.

Barak also refused to give up the prospect of returning the Golan Heights to Syria to secure a peace deal.

Although it is not a proponent of the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, Shas has supported the peace process in the past because its spiritual leader considers the land-for-peace initiative a religious imperative.

At times, politicians and pundits accused Barak of flirting with the opposition Likud bloc to bring Shas into the fold. The prime minister-elect denied the charge. "He was honestly interested in keeping all of his options open, and like a good commander, secured more than one escape route," said political analyst Yossi Verter in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz.

Led by the Labor Party, Barak's government will include Shas, the Russian immigrants party of Israel B'Aliya, the National Religious Party, the small ultra-Orthodox parties and the liberal, left-wing Meretz party.

Barak "wanted a broad government and he got it, and only time will tell how he controls this creature, which in the eyes of many skeptics was not exactly a natural birth," political commentator Hemi Shalev wrote this week in the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv.

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