Barak falls out of favor

Lack of progress in peace talks hurts Israeli prime minister

`Really up against it'

Former soldier firm in face of difficulties, including coalition rifts

May 14, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - A year after his landslide victory sent hopes soaring, Prime Minister Ehud Barak seems to be earning the label he once used so effectively to pummel his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu: "Takua," Hebrew for "stuck."

The peace process with Syria, in which Barak and President Clinton invested many hours and much prestige, appears hopelessly stalled, and talks with the Palestinians are inching along.

Seething frustration in the West Bank and Gaza has spilled over inside Israel, producing violent demonstrations and rising nationalism among Israeli Arabs.

Worse, Barak must make good on a campaign pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon by July, but without the cooperation from Syria that would make it relatively painless.

The possibility that the current low-level border conflict could give way to war is not being dismissed. Additionally, relations with Washington, on which Israelis place great importance, have been severely strained by Israel's deal to sell sophisticated early-warning aircraft to China.

And, far from subsiding, the clash of cultures and mutual resentment between Israel's secular and Orthodox populations is once again in the spotlight, with politically charged controversies over the funding of religious schools and the exemption of ultra-religious yeshiva students from military service."I think he's really up against it," says a senior Western diplomat who admires Barak.

One bright spot ought to be Israel's low-inflation economy, pulling itself out of a slump thanks to flourishing high-tech and research sectors and deft management by Israel's equivalent of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the now-retired Bank of Israel governor Jacob Frenkel.

The future promises to be brighter still, with West European nations that once held Israel at arm's length beating a path here to spur investment and trade.

But this news hasn't sunk in with the average Israeli. What he sees is still-high unemployment and a yawning gap between rich and poor, typified by displays of wealth in north Tel Aviv and the poverty and crime of neglected "development towns."

Asked in a recent poll commissioned by the newspaper Yediot Ahronot to give an overall grade to the prime minister, 61 percent of respondents rated him "not good to bad," and only half thought the highly decorated ex-commando and Army chief of staff was doing a good job in his second role as defense minister.

Political experts here say most prime ministers drop in public esteem the first two years after an election. But Barak's fall is striking because he started on such a high, winning 56 percent of the vote May 17 to oust a man many Israelis had come to distrust.

In what the editor of Ma'ariv, Yaakov Erez, described as "the most dramatic evening in Israeli politics," Barak spoke before thousands gathered for an election night rally in the Tel Aviv square named for his assassinated mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, pledging, "This is indeed the dawn of a new day."

He promised "not a peace which comes at the expense of security, but peace that will bring security." At that moment, it might have been easy to discount the menace of scores of Katyusha rockets falling on northern Israel that same evening from Hezbollah hideouts in southern Lebanon.

Barak set about building a broad, diverse coalition that would ensure him the solid backing of a Jewish majority for a comprehensive peace. Many consider this politically necessary in a state where peace and security are inextricably bound up with Israel's survival.

Coalition pressures

In so doing, he sowed the seeds of at least one of his main problems, a coalition in near disarray."You can have everyone inside if you have no agenda. But if you have an agenda, you've got to have someone outside," says parliament Speaker Avram Burg.

The coalition includes the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, whose leaders generally support the peace process but must be continually appeased with budget concessions for their schools and other programs. This has brought threats to bolt the coalition from Barak's most reliable peace ally, the secular, leftist Meretz Party.

Barak might have avoided these crises had he devoted his full attention to domestic affairs. But almost from the moment he took office, he fixed on a goal that had eluded his three predecessors - peace with Syria, the last powerful enemy on Israel's border.

To achieve it, Barak was prepared to relinquish the strategic advantage provided by the Golan Heights, the soaring 400-square-mile plateau and mountains that Israel took from Syria in the 1967 war. He hoped to shore up Israel's defenses and compensate uprooted settlers with the help of a $17 billion aid package from Washington.

But he was not prepared to leave any doubt as to who controlled the reservoir below the hills that supplies a full third of Israel's water - the tranquil Sea of Galilee. He insisted that Israel keep a swath of land at least several hundred yards deep on the eastern side of the lake.

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