The race for Mideast peace

Taba talks: Arafat's apparent effort to let Barak deliver before the election comes too late.

January 27, 2001

AFTER MONTHS of stalling and proposing nothing while rejecting everything, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat kicked the peace talks with Israel at Taba in Egypt into gear. A deal, or at least a paper with points of agreement, looks possible before Israel's Feb. 6 election.

But polls suggest that nothing could save Prime Minister Ehud Barak against the onslaught of the old warrior Ariel Sharon. This is personal, not ideological. Since coming to power in May 1999 with a mandate to make peace, Mr. Barak has been inept, delivered nothing and alienated many.

With Israel's public deeply divided, a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority along the lines Mr. Barak proposed last summer would probably fail.

The polls show that while the old General Barak has no chance against the older General Sharon, the peacenik former Prime Minister Shimon Peres does. Not that Israelis trust Mr. Peres, but they never did trust Mr. Sharon. Still, a last-minute substitution of candidacy, while legal, is not likely.

The world is waking up to Mr. Sharon, a lifelong warrior for Israel, who in almost every chapter of the national battle for survival got in trouble with superiors for going too far. He is particularly blamed for the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that triggered atrocities, achieved none of its rationale and produced a painful occupation that Mr. Barak ended last year.

To many in the Arab world, Mr. Sharon is a war criminal. Even Israelis who would defend him from the charge concede that as prime minister he would impede peace-making. For his part, Mr. Sharon as opposition leader has cast feelers to various Arab leaders.

The Israeli Arab voters who helped make Mr. Barak prime minister in 1999 are thoroughly alienated and likely to boycott the election rather than rally to stop Mr. Sharon. It would be nice to be wrong, but the appearance is that a real chance for peace was ignored until too late and another won't come along until after Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon have departed from political leadership.

If only the negotiators at Taba and their constituencies at home could prove this pessimism wrong.

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