Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Ehud Barak – The Party is Over

About ten days back, when the euphoria surrounding Barak’s victorious visit to the U.S. was at its height, I felt it necessary to express concern that many of Barak’s policies and political tendencies might frustrate hopes that he would be a key architect of a new and peaceful ME. Unfortunately, my concerns were all too justified. Barak, who came into power promising change, is rapidly wasting the good will which the public extended to him. This seems to be true in all major areas such as promises for clean government, transformation of the economy, etc. There are already indications that Barak is adopting a highly authoritarian style towards his colleagues, especially towards Yossi Beilin and Shlomo Ben-Ami. However, at this point, we must concentrate on the peace process, which is after all the critical test for Barak.
The newest element in the equation is a flood of serious criticism from liberal commentators and analysts, all of whom, there is basis to believe, were personally well disposed to Barak and shared the public desire to see a genuine shift in Israeli policy. It is almost like Barak refuses to understand that he has some hard decisions to make.
In the words of Ze’ev Schiff, Barak refuses to understand that the “party is over.” Analyzing the meager results of the most recent meeting with Arafat on July 26, 1999 at Erez checkpoint, Ze’ev Schiff, respected military correspondent for “Ha’aretz” wrote, “Now the grueling work must begin: Barak must pay his debts instead of dining off declarations and promises.” (Ha’aretz, July 27, 1999). Schiff questions whether Barak has any clear plans for continuing negotiations with the Palestinians, reminding his readers that Barak will be unable to satisfy both the settlers and the Palestinians for long.”
Getting out of Implementing Wye
Ostensibly, Ehud Barak’s request that the PA consider delaying implementation of [parts of] the Wye Accords was an innocuous affair. Barak has reiterated more than once that, if the Palestinians insist, he is prepared to implement the Accords. However, Barak has launched a full scale public campaign designed to explain why the delay is “good for the Palestinians.” Israeli propaganda is busy explaining that a Palestinian refusal to accept Barak’s argument for delay will be costly to the Palestinians and might indeed be the cause for failure of the entire peace process. Barak feeds the press with horror stories: “Imagine, he (Barak) said (to his American hosts) that Yasser Arafat and I reach an agreement to manufacture matches, but circumstances arise that would force the new product to be tested over an open barrel of fuel. I would suggest to my partner that he think ahead, close the barrel, allow the fumes to evaporate and only then conduct the test. If he agrees, fine. If not, we will conduct the test over the open barrel as planned – but he will have to be aware of the danger.” (Dan Margalit, Ha’aretz, July 26, 1997). This kind of threatening language is, of course, another warning from Barak who has been openly complaining that the last stage of the agreed Wye pullback retreat will leave 15 settlements in relative isolation. Arafat is supposed to understand that this may be a political or strategic problem for Barak and to show consideration.
Moreover, according to Margalit, Israel is prepared to start being mean to Arafat if he fails to understand Barak’s needs. The Israelis will start repeating Netanyahu’s complaints about the Palestinians not jailing suspects, not submitting lists of policemen and not-confiscating of illegal weapons, and about incitement in the schools - despite the fact almost all these accusations have been rejected as groundless by the US and other international observers.
The thinly veiled message from Barak to prominent journalists gets uglier and uglier. “In a closed forum, Barak spoke in rather surprising terms about Arafat’s position; the Prime Minister believes that most of the PA’s reservations about his proposal stem from the fact that his (Barak’s) willingess to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all interfered with the PA’s intentions. According to Barak’s version, Arafat benefited from Netanyahu’s intransigence, gaining world sympathy. He planned to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally…” (Uzi Benziman, Ha’aretz, July 30, 1999). Benziman’ who reports the statement is appalled at Barak’s line of thinking. “The tone of Barak’s words does not bode well. It seems to say that the PM is considering the possibility (and perhaps even expecting) that Israel and the Palestinians will not come to an understanding and he wants to build an alibi.”
This is not exactly the Israeli willingness to implement Wye that Barak wants to project to the international community. Every political novice understands that Barak wants to give as little territory as possible now, so as to include the “delayed 5%” in the final settlement proposals by Israel. No responsible Palestinian leader could even think of agreeing to the idea, especially as any willingness to allow backtracking on any signed agreements would render the Palestinians, as the weaker party, totally subject to every Israeli whim. Despite this, Israeli sources keep claiming that Barak’s warning is meeting with more and more understanding among the Palestinians, the Egyptians and the international community. Every other day we are informed that, despite official Palestinian statements to the contrary, the PA is thinking seriously about Barak’s warnings.
The Strategy behind the Tactics
Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer are the two senior political commentators of the mass circulation Israeli daily, Yedioth Ahronoth. Naturally enough, they were in DC with Barak. In Washington, they learned of Barak’s plans regarding Wye.“Barak is not eager to implement the third, last stage of the Wye Accord, since, according to the IDF, the retreat will make it difficult to defend the roadway approaches of 15 settlements in the heart of the Shomron. In his opinion, Arafat, also, is not interested in exposing the settlements to terrorist activity. This will only make things more difficult for Arafat later on. The same problem that bothered Netanyahu lurks behind this argument: how to keep the most territory in Israeli hands towards the showdown on the final status. There is no big difference between views of the two on the final settlement: they want to keep 30-50% of the West Bank, including Jerusalem, in Israeli hands. The difference [between the two] is in the conclusion: Netanyahu despaired of a settlement, Barak believes that one is possible.”(Yedioth Ahronot, July 23, 1999). This amazing revelation, coming as it does from quarters friendly to the PM, explains why Barak has, so far, embraced Netanyahu’s basic strategy, namely to reduce Palestinian expectations. Netanyahu saw this as one of the crowning successes of his administration. Barak is doing everything to be a worthy successor.
Akiva Eldar,(Ha’aretz’ July 28, 1999) suggests that Barak has as yet to free himself from the paranoia characteristic of Israeli military thinking. “His [Barak’s] main problem is that instead of preparing the people for peace, he is still concerned primarily with security. A prime minister who promises a change has not come the distance that others in his cabinet have towards Arafat’s observation…that true security will be based on establishing normal relations…and from a process of building joint interests.” Barak, according to Eldar, is failing in his duty to instill the necessary confidence in the body public in order to prepare it to support peace.
The headlines this morning announce a new crisis in the Israeli-Palestinian talks. You already have, at your disposal, the background for this abrupt – but not totally unexpected new deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations.