Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Mideast, Patience Wears Thin ; One Year after His Landslide Victory, Ehud Barak's Peace Plans Are Unraveling and His Approval Rates Are Dropping

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Mideast, Patience Wears Thin ; One Year after His Landslide Victory, Ehud Barak's Peace Plans Are Unraveling and His Approval Rates Are Dropping

Article excerpt

It was only one year ago today that Ehud Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier, was overwhelmingly elected to lead Israel to peace with its Arab neighbors.

But he so far has been unable to live up to the towering expectations he raised. Little has gone right with his foreign agenda. And domestically, surveys show his approval rating has fallen to below 40 percent. One poll even shows him only one point ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing incumbent he trounced last year.

Over the past two days, Israelis and Palestinians fought their first gun-battles in nearly four years; Barak's coalition partners threatened to abandon him over his plans to turn over three villages outside Jerusalem to Palestinians; and the chief Palestinian negotiator for final peace talks quit. The peace deal with Syria also seems unattainable.

"I think these clashes are a danger, and this coalition crisis is a very serious problem for Barak," says Barry Rubin, at the Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "If it's this hard to get people to accept the transfer of a couple of villages, how hard will it be at a later stage when substantial concessions are necessary?"

Barak was elected on a platform that championed a revival of the peace tracks that had stalled under Mr. Netanyahu. He promised that a clear peace with Israel's neighbors - primarily the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon - would help jump-start Israel's sluggish economy.

One of the complications, experts here say, is that Barak prefers things be done incognito, with as little media exposure as possible, and is described by those who have worked closely with him as a man who believes that if only everyone would step aside and let him get down to business, he'll engineer swift, smart peace deals with the Arab world. .

But earlier this week, things began to unravel, as a leak revealed the existence of ongoing secret Israeli-Palestinian talks in Sweden, which compounds a sense that Barak had been hoping to broker a final peace deal, which was part of his election manifesto.

The eruption of the most deadly Palestinian-Israeli clashes in more than four years across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and a large Israeli right-wing protest in Jerusalem, show that with much of the conflict still unsolved, Barak's plans are in trouble.

The violence coincided with the 52nd anniversary of what Palestinians call al-Nakba, the national day of mourning marking Israel's creation in 1948. At least three Palestinians were killed, and more than 300 wounded in the clashes. Some 15 Israeli soldiers were hurt.

Clinton administration officials, taken off-guard by the violence that provided an unpleasant welcome mat for US Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross May 16, suggested that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat still sees the threat of disturbances as an important means to providing Israel with periodic incentives to territorial compromise.

"Al-Nakba is a sort of a 'must-do' demonstration for the Palestinians, a show of the ability to deliver street anger if their demands aren't met," says a US official involved in the peace talks. "It's all about what the Israelis will give and what the Palestinians will take, and they see no other action they can take to get more."

Barak, for his part, has made several gestures to convince Palestinians that he is sincere. He opened a long-awaited safe passage route between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, carried out some minor troop redeployments, and released some Palestinian prisoners. …

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