Barak can deliver a peace Israel wants

July 16, 2000|By Hirsh Goodman

JERUSALEM -- A former education minister and leader of the left-wing Meretz Party said with his usual acerbity the other day that Israel has many politicians but too few statesmen. Ehud Barak, he added, is a statesman.

Yossi Sarid made his comment hours after the Knesset, or parliament, passed a vote of no-confidence in the government against the backdrop of Mr. Barak's decision to attend the Camp David summit.

To make matters worse, in addition to the parliamentary vote against him that morning, Mr. Barak's coalition partners were jumping ship faster than the media could track them. The departure of Natan Sharansky's Russian immigrant party and the National Religious Party had been expected.

The real slap in the face, one that ostensibly left Mr. Barak politically crippled, came when Shas, the Sepharadi ultra-Orthodox party with 17 seats in 120-member Knesset, pulled out. Mr. Barak was leaving for one of the most fateful meetings any Israeli prime minister had ever encountered without a parliamentary majority.

Most men would have been on their knees. Not Mr. Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier, former chief of staff, clumsy politician, but a man who all his adult life has been trained and honed to reach his objective.

As polls later proved, he claimed that the Knesset did not accurately reflect the will of the people. He had been elected with an unprecedented majority by the people, not the Knesset, and was there to serve the people, not the political whims of this party or that. He said that he had not for one minute considered not going to Camp David and that he was going there determined to come back with a deal. That deal would then be submitted to a plebiscite and the people would decide.

More than 75 percent of Israelis, according to a poll broadcast and commissioned by the Israel Broadcasting Authority's Second Channel, agree with Mr. Barak's decision. It showed what Mr. Barak knew: Israelis want peace and they trust him to negotiate it.

Those who opposed him were essentially political parties fighting for the right-wing vote -- the Likud, Sharansky, Shas, the National Religious Party and a group of several splinter parties calling themselves the Nationalist Bloc. The country knows that the results of this mission could be painful. If there will be an agreement, Mr. Barak has to be able to deliver on Jerusalem, Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza and Palestinian refugees. In return he has to bring home a formal Palestinian statement that the conflict is over. If he does, Israelis will accept the price and the uncertainty of what such a potentially volatile peace could bring in the future and vote for it.

This is, for the most part, an educated and politically astute electorate. The 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union who leaned to the right have now been in the country for more than five years. More than 40 per cent of the people employed in Israel's huge hi-tech industry are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They know and understand what the rewards of peace would be.

The same can be said for the tens of thousands of youngsters who served in Lebanon over the years and are tired of conflict and yearn for a normal life. Ditto for their parents. The country has seen Mr. Barak extricate Israel from Lebanon as he promised, and they trust him to reach an equitable settlement with the Palestinians.

That agreement will hand over about 90 per cent of the occupied territories to the Palestinians. Israeli settlements will be included in that handover. Mr. Barak has made that clear.

But he also claims that it would be a major achievement if the more than 120,000 Israelis who live in those settlements permanently would come under Israeli sovereignty, and it indeed would be.

Jerusalem is tricky but not insoluble and the refugee issue can be cosmetically resolved with some imaginative diplomacy. What all will hinge on, however, is whether the agreement holds. That is something that even Mr. Barak cannot guarantee and something both sides would have to work hard at achieving.

Israel now has internationally recognized boundaries with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. A deal with Syria is entirely possible given Hafez Assad's departure and the needs of his successor son, Bashar.

If Mr. Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat can agree to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the Middle East conflict would be over and Israel's acceptance in the region complete.

Hirsh Goodman, a former editor of the Jerusalem Post, is an Israeli political and military analyst.

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