Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Will Ehud Barak Revive the Peace Process? the New Israeli Government Resumes the Slow Crawl toward Peace

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Will Ehud Barak Revive the Peace Process? the New Israeli Government Resumes the Slow Crawl toward Peace

Article excerpt

Will Ehud Barak Revive the Peace Process? The New Israeli Government Resumes the Slow Crawl Toward Peace

A magician's skill lies in his ability to convince an audience that he is doing one thing while in fact he is doing another. Israeli leaders have been masters of the art from the beginning.

In 1948 David Ben-Gurion successfully portrayed Israel as a weak, beleaguered nation struggling to defend its very existence while at the same time its powerful army was fighting to capture more Arab territory. Menachem Begin, a former terrorist leader who launched the bloody 1982 invasion of Lebanon, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, as was Yitzhak Rabin, who for years refused to talk with Palestinian leaders, then, after reluctantly signing the Oslo agreement, delayed implementing it while he rapidly expanded West Bank settlements. Rabin's successor, Shimon Peres, sealed the borders of the West Bank and Gaza and turned both territories into giant detention camps, yet he, too, is hailed as a man of peace.

Ehud Barak's election has raised hopes that Israel and the Palestinians will once more resume the road to peace, but the records of past Israeli leaders indicate that the road will be filled with obstacles. Barak is not likely to break ranks. Throughout his career he has given unswerving support to the government in power, and as a career soldier repeatedly helped implement Israel's policy of responding to Arab resistance with overwhelming force. During his rise to become Israel's top military commander he was a member of a commando hit squad and once even entered Beirut disguised as a woman in pursuit of one of his victims -- whom he assassinated, along with the man's wife.

Nevertheless, Barak's government differs significantly from former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's. The coalition includes the ultraOrthodox but pro-peace Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, with their combined 22 seats, rather than the hard-line Likud.

The small Center Party, made up largely of former Likud members, will also be part of the coalition along with the party of Russian immigrants and the dovish Meretz. Barak's foreign minister, David Levy, favors an exchange of land for peace.

No Arab was named to a cabinet post, however, even though Arabs overwhelmingly supported Barak's election. Knesset member Ahmed Tibi angrily called the omission "a slap in the face...we did not expect."

What worries some propeace observers is that the government will include the five-member National Religious Party, which represents settlers who oppose any dismantling of settlements. Also worrisome is the fact that Barak left Likud out of the new government only after extended negotiations with Likud chairman Ariel Sharon, and then only because of Sharon's refusal to join.

The two men disagreed over two issues: Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Likud opposes, and construction of more Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, which Likud favors. Only a week before pulling out of the talks Sharon had told Likud members that he and Barak were close to agreement on a number of the issues to be negotiated in final status talks with the Palestinians, including the future of Jerusalem and West Bank settlements.

"It's very clear that we'll have influence over the central issues," Sharon said at one point. As late as the last week in June Israeli political analysts were predicting that Sharon would be the new finance minister.

Sharon also hinted that Barak had promised to carry out decisions made by the Netanyahu government, which Barak's spokesman denied. Barak himself has said he will review "all prior authorized decisions," a statement that still leaves open the question of whether he will allow work to continue on any of the projects actually begun under Netanyahu.

According to Barak's guidelines, his government will build no new settlements and will no longer subsidize the purchase of settlement housing. …

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