Barak the dove, Barak the bargainer

Israeli leader's proposal to alter Wye procedures puts Palestinians on edge

August 07, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A cartoon in Israel's leading daily newspaper this week depicted Prime Minister Ehud Barak as a veiled, Palestinian woman haggling over a sack of vegetables. "I'll give you half now, a quarter in December and the rest in six payments," the Barak character tells the market vendor. "You'd better take it."

Once seen as a generous, embracing peacemaker, Barak now projects the image of a tough, demanding bargainer.

The former military leader was elected May 17 on a pledge to restart the stalled Middle East peace process. At home and abroad, he was heralded as the Israeli leader who would implement an overdue land-for-security deal and inject an essential ingredient into the beleaguered process -- trust.

But Barak put forth a plan that set the Palestinians and peace activists on edge -- he asked to merge a phase of the Wye peace agreement with the start of long-delayed negotiations to reach a final peace settlement, talks that will tackle the thorniest issues between the two sides.

Barak expressed concern that some Jewish settlements in remote areas of the West Bank would be vulnerable to terrorist attacks if Israel withdrew its troops from those areas as required under the Wye agreement.

A decision by the Palestinians on whether they will go along with the delay is expected within the week. The Palestinians have insisted from the outset that Barak implement the Wye measures immediately and transfer an additional 13 percent of West Bank land to their control.

Although Barak pledged to implement Wye if Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat didn't accept his proposal, his tone sounded patronizing to and carried an implied threat -- or at least that is the way it was perceived by some on both sides.

The hope generated by Barak's first few weeks in office has dissipated. In some quadrants, suspicion has replaced hope. The peace process seems in a "crisis," some argue. Others describe the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as at an "impasse." Bitter accusations are flying as Barak supporters counsel patience.

Zvi Shtauber, an adviser to Barak, suggested that the Palestinians were overreacting to the proposal and behaving as if Barak were former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, their nemesis. Barak has offered a "safety net" -- if they are not satisfied with his proposal, he will implement the Wye agreement, Shtauber said.

"I spent many years in negotiations with the Palestinians. It's an artificial crisis. The point here is, all the sides understand that we -- they and us -- are the only players in what we are doing who will have an impact on our future here," he said. "We are in the initial stages. We are a new administration. The rules of the game are totally different."

To reinforce his commitment to Wye, Barak announced he would resume the process in September, with the delayed land transfer to occur around Oct. 1. The Palestinians weren't reassured.

This week, on his 70th birthday, Arafat pledged that Palestinians would continue their struggle, their "jihad" -- or holy war -- in the hopes of one day flying a Palestinian flag over Jerusalem.

Arafat's remark prompted an angry response from Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy. "This style does not advance the peace," he said.

Fatah, Arafat's main political organization, likened Barak to Netanyahu, who brought the Wye process to a halt.

"Barak, unfortunately, does not differ that much from Netanyahu. He says beautiful, deceptive things about his readiness to implement the peace agreements, but tries to impose new realities -- the same ones Netanyahu failed to impose," said a statement on Fatah's Internet site.

Palestinian officials have reportedly asked U.S. peace envoy Dennis Ross to intervene, according to the Associated Press. The United States, which helped broker the Wye deal, prefers to let the two sides work out their differences, even though Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is planning to visit the region in the coming weeks.

Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian analyst and pollster, views the state of affairs as a minor crisis. Each side, "particularly the new Israeli government," is "trying to create an environment that is more conducive to its own way of doing things," he said.

Arafat, who initially embraced Barak, calling him his "partner" and "friend," now speaks of the prime minister as "just another politician" who "if he is able to, will get away with anything he can get away with."

Shikaki worries that the dispute of the past two weeks has "sort of destroyed [the Palestinians'] good intentions and hopes that this would be a new beginning. I think all of that is giving way to a more somber analysis of the situation."

But observers point out that Israel's 57-year-old prime minister spent his entire career in the military. His closest advisers on security matters are veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces he commanded. His concern over the security of Jewish settlements is understandable, given his military background.

While in uniform, Barak criticized the groundbreaking Oslo peace accords between the Palestinians and Israelis "as riddled with holes." As a Cabinet minister in a former Labor-led government, he abstained on a vote for Oslo II that began the swap of land for peace, citing security concerns.

"I suggest we all show some patience," said Yossi Sarid, leader of the liberal Meretz Party and the education minister in Barak's Cabinet.

"Barak is only prime minister 30 days, and everybody is so nervous. We thought Wye has to be implemented immediately," Sarid said. "The man wants to try a step that is a bit different, so it's not a fatality. Let him try. If he will succeed, he'll succeed."

Pub Date: 8/07/99

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