Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Will Ehud Barak Put Israel on the Road to Real Land-for-Peace with Palestine? Shape of the Peace Now Depends More on Syria Than on Israel

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Will Ehud Barak Put Israel on the Road to Real Land-for-Peace with Palestine? Shape of the Peace Now Depends More on Syria Than on Israel

Article excerpt

Will Ehud Barak Put Israel on the Road to Real Land-for-Peace With Palestine? Shape of the Peace Now Depends More On Syria Than On Israel

Most American Jews breathed a collective sigh of relief on May 17 when Gen. Ehud Barak was elected prime minister of Israel by 56 to 44 percent of the vote. The last-minute withdrawal of three other candidates to ensure a first-ballot Barak victory obviated the need for a divisive June 1 runoff election. It also circumvented the possibility that incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was counting on a violent confrontation with Palestinians or Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, or even a suicide bombing within Israel, to tilt the vote away from his more moderate rival before the runoff election.

Strangely, the Arab-Israeli peace process, which is the main interest of the outside world, hardly figured in the campaign in Israel. Israelis were fixated upon the polarizing personality of Netanyahu, the growing bitter division between religious and secular Jews and the closely related gulf between Sephardi Jewish "have-nots" and Ashkenazi Jewish "elites" within Israel.

Similarly, American Jewish satisfaction at the election result was based largely on the averting of a clash by the anti-American Netanyahu with members of Congress and the Clinton administration, and a possible weakening of the stranglehold on the Israeli government of Orthodox Jewish rabbis who are deeply resented by the more than 80 percent of American Jews who are affiliated with Conservative or Reform rather than Orthodox Judaism.

However, the belief that Barak's election will revive the peace process is implicit in everything said by mainstream American Jewish leaders. Exactly how this will take place has not yet been widely discussed, perhaps because up until now many of those same American Jewish leaders had been unwilling to admit publicly that it was Israel under Netanyahu that had derailed the peace process following his 1996 election.

By contrast, commentators among the large and growing Israeli community in the U.S. have been quick to proclaim that despite the fact that his "One Israel" ticket won only 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Barak, Israel's most-decorated soldier, will have little trouble putting together a coalition government drawn from parties of his choice. The Israeli pundits have been equally quick to suggest that Barak move quickly to resume peace negotiations with Syria's President Hafez Al-Assad, picking up where those negotiations ended in the spring of 1996 when Netanyahu refused to validate the negotiating concessions made by his defeated Labor Party predecessors.

In fact, despite Barak's quiet, even secretive, nature, it's easy to predict, both from his campaign rhetoric and the well-documented history of the peace process to date, how the negotiations will be renewed. It is the outcome, however, that cannot be foreseen, because it is not in Barak's, Yasser Arafat's, nor even in President Bill Clinton's hands. It lies instead in the hands of Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad, who in turn may be heavily influenced by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

American commentators predict that Barak will move quickly to honor Netanyahu's unfulfilled promise at the Wye Plantation last October of relatively minor but clearly defined Israeli withdrawals in the West Bank. Although Barak may eventually do this, generally Israeli leaders exact a price two or three times for the same withdrawal. In fact, the Wye Plantation promises were simply derivatives of the Oslo accords of 1993 and 1995, as previously elaborated at Taba and in Cairo.

Since each time they were restated, Israel extracted new political, military and economic concessions from the U.S., there's little reason to believe that Barak will do otherwise. It's conceivable that he may not waste the Wye Plantation withdrawals on the lame-duck Clinton administration, but instead save them to extract concessions from Clinton's successor in 2001. …

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