Sunday, February 27, 2000

Backtracking with Barak

What was left of the peace process stutters, gasps and stalls. For the peace camp which supported him and voted for him overwhelmingly, it is becoming painfully clear that either Barak was never serious about real concessions for peace or that he cannot summon up the political courage to make the necessary concessions – a classic failure of nerve. The reader can choose his or her own version. The result is the same: dashed expectations, ignored deadlines, mutual recrimination. It wasn’t easy but Barak has “succeeded” in stopping the peace process dead in its tracks simultaneously on all three tracks. Quite an achievement when one considers that very recently Barak was being complimented for having created a situation in which he could play one track off the other.
This diplomatic catastrophe is a direct result of Barak’s illusions that he could move towards peace without clashing with the settler right and its political allies. The ability to confront and disarm the settler right appears to be the only genuine litmus test of any sincere desire for peace by an Israeli politician. We will never know if Rabin would have passed this test, but it is clear that Barak never came to grips with the problem. The settler right continues to threaten the government with vicious, violent confrontation should it make any serious move towards peace. Moreover, the settlers in the Palestinian territories have found a new lease on life by teaming up with the Golan settlers. Barak has waffled every time he had to make a clear move that would mean a face off with the settler right and its allies in the government. This is why he backtracked on his own commitment towards meeting one of the most modest of Palestinian demands (transfer of a single neighborhood in the Jerusalem district, Abu Dis), this is the reason that Barak refused to talk business in Washington when the Syrian-Israeli talks renewed. We do not have to know whether Barak is merely using domestic pressure as a subterfuge or whether he himself never intended any real moves towards peace, hoping to use his international prestige to force the Arab side into agreements which conform with Israel’s political and strategic needs. The end result is the same. These policies guarantee frustration and violence in the not too distant future.

Israel’s strategic decision to stand pat and try and force the Arab side into a new round of painful concessions suffered a serious blow from the Hezbollah. It was quite ignominious to suffer serious political and strategic defeat from a small guerilla type movement at the very moment that Israel was trying to prove to the entire Arab world that it has no choice but to surrender to Israel dictated terms on all the fronts. This is the reason that successful resistance by the Hezbollah drove the Israeli body politic over the wall. It is difficult for the Israeli regime to admit that it has lost a serious local war in Southern Lebanon. The loss of seven IDF soldiers in less than a week, after a period of relative quiet, threw the military and political establishment into panic. Barak had to renew his promise for withdrawal from Lebanon by July with or without an agreement. However, given the murky political scene, a unilateral withdrawal can be interpreted as a power gambit against the Syrians and a direct threat against the Lebanese government. Thus, the Lebanese government will be held responsible for curtailing the Hezbollah, no simple matter after the latter can justly claim the credit for expelling Israel and the IDF from Lebanese territory. Barak’s decision to attack the Lebanese infrastructure in Beirut, in addition to being a retaliation for Hezbollah successes, is a sign of how Israel intends to respond to Hezbollah actions after the IDF will leave Lebanese territory. Thus, the IDF withdrawal, instead of relaxing tension, will tend to ‘up the ante.’ Instead of cutting its losses, Israel is ready to convert the war which it lost to the Hezbollah into a major confrontation between Israel and Syria, Lebanon and Iran, all of whom have sinned by recognizing the Hezbollah right to resist Israeli occupation. Theoretically, the Israeli withdrawal could solve the problem, but things are usually not quite that simple. Almost anything can go wrong with a unilateral withdrawal.

Recidivism – Back to the Stuff

Any neutral observer will be shocked and pained to see how easily Israel has slipped back into previous forms of addiction. Any political or military setback is an excuse for threats and war hysteria. The setback set off a series of internal developments demonstrating that the Israeli state apparatus is in a state of extreme dysfunction. After the spate of losses, the Chief of Staff, Mofaz, openly demanded greater ‘freedom of action’ from the political echelon. This open challenge to the political echelon supplied incontrovertible “proof” to the right and the public that Israel’s losses in Lebanon had indeed stemmed from hesitation and indecision at the top. The generals on the front began to badmouth their own ‘crybaby’ soldiers and came out with a vicious attack on the media and peace movement. Our ‘dovish’ Foreign Minister decided ‘to save the peace’ by warning the world that the Lebanon would go up in flames and that Israel would take vengeance, ‘blood for blood, child for child.’ Levy, visibly in a state of extreme excitement, demanded that his audience here and abroad understand that he was issuing this warning in the name of peace, so that Israel would not have to implement his horrible threats. In this kind of atmosphere, it was only natural that he remind the Israeli public that Israeli Arabs are supporters of Israel’s enemies.

Perhaps the saddest element in the picture is the dire lack of any serious opposition to the attack on peace by the Israeli government. Barak and his intimates had never really agreed to moderate their hegemonic, hawkish discourse during the negotiations. Barak’s main effort was to convince the public that no one (even Netanyahu) could be tougher on the Arabs. The Israeli in the street could only conclude that this peace was a kind of war by other means and that Barak was going to teach the Arabs that they could never expect to get anything that inconvenienced Israel and the settlers.

This dominant discourse was not challenged by those elements in the ‘peace camp’ who assumed, mistakenly and fatally, that it was just a clever technique for convincing the right to go along with Barak. In these circumstances, how can one fault the general public, which has been conditioned to see the whole process as one of unilateral Israeli generosity. The public was made to understand that Israel had all the cards and total military superiority at its disposal.

Neither the Meretz ministers nor the leading doves in the Labor party were willing to challenge Barak’s moves. Meretz, despite Barak’s candid declarations that he considers himself closer to the settlers, allowed Barak all the leeway in the world. Barak was supposed to bring the right into the peace camp, but instead the right effectively turned him around. Some Meretz leaders will try to place the blame for the crisis on the Arab side, citing the recent flood of ugly rhetoric from Arab sources. But the chain of cause and effect is clear. This time it was Israeli policy, Israeli military action and Israeli rhetoric, which buried any hope for peace. The Israeli right is rushing to defend the government and Meretz spends its time debating marginal elements in Barak’s policy. So far, it has assumed total responsibility for Barak’s policy and its inevitable results. Instead of exposing Barak’s full-scale retreat from peace, Meretz keeps hoping that , at the last minute, Barak will swoop out of the dark sky and rescue the peace process by some spectacular and daring moves. However, it will be very hard, if not impossible for Barak to make any concessions at this point without admitting that he and his policies are responsible for the impasse and the crisis.Thus, before our very eyes, the peace process is deteriorating into a process of preparation for a new war. The elements of escalation and destabilization are already in the air. One can already hear the Israeli apologists in the Western media explaining that Barak, as the leader of a democracy, had to go slow because of legitimate domestic considerations. But the truth is that less than a year ago, in the May elections, the Israeli electorate gave Ehud Barak a totally convincing mandate to make peace. The forces which openly opposed the Oslo process were roundly defeated and totally marginalized. Barak has squandered a clear mandate for peace and the entire region may have to pay the price.