Fulfilling a campaign promise to reignite the Middle East peace process, Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt
Friday, and was planning to meet with King Abdullah II and President Clinton early next week.
Barak, the 57-year-old career warrior against Israel's Arab neighbors, has tilted in the direction
of peace, despite some concerns that he was "Bibi-compatible" -- reciting
moderate rhetoric but in fact sharing Netanyahu's hard-line stance on the peace process.
Vestiges of that concern were still echoed by Palestinian negotiators after Barak
and Mubarak exchanged a warm handshake amid the snapping flashbulbs in Alexandria
Friday. "What we heard from Barak at the press conference was more music than
words," Palestinian Planning Minister Nabil Shaath told the Associated Press.
"We want to see him starting the peace process with implementation of Wye, and a
real cessation of settlement activity."
But among his supporters in Israel and among Western leaders, the meetings this
weekend mark a dramatic turnaround from the Netanyahu era. In his first steps as
prime minister, and in the formation of his ruling coalition, Barak has sent a
clear message that peace is once again at the top of the Israeli political agenda.
The key clue comes from Barak's decision to include the ultra-religious, but
relatively dovish Shas party in his coalition instead of the Likud. After the aged
hawk Ariel Sharon, who succeeded Netanyahu as Likud leader, demanded control
of the peace process, Barak turned him down and went with Shas.
Shas, an ultra-religious Sephardic (Middle Eastern Jewish) party, is by far the
fastest-growing political party in Israel. It grew from 10 to 17 Knesset seats
(out of 120) in the last election, putting it just behind Likud (19 seats and
falling) as the third-largest party in Israel.
Shas is dovish almost solely because its founder, spiritual leader and
all-powerful decision maker, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, believes that the Torah requires
that parts of the holy land of Israel be sacrificed if this will save Jewish
lives. While Shas follows Yosef's dictates, most of its supporters -- many of whom are
religious, but less so than the Shas leadership -- tend to be more nationalistic
and less willing to give up land.
Unlike other religious parties, Shas is not involved in sending Israeli settlers
into controversial new Israeli housing projects in the West Bank. United Torah
Judaism, an ultra-religious Ashkenazic (European Jewish) party, is also in the
government, and has loose but growing ties to the settlements. Its policy on the
peace process tends to be hawkish, but not automatically so.
The party that, more than any other, represents the settlers is the National
Religious Party. It has also joined the Barak government -- mainly to safeguard, to
whatever extent it can, the settlements' welfare. The NRP is against giving up
any land, but it also recognizes that a large majority of the Israeli public
wants the peace process to continue, so it has become increasingly pragmatic. If
Barak gets to the point where he's making extensive concessions of land to the
Palestinians and Syrians, the NRP is likely to leave the government. UJT might
also leave. Shas, however, is a good bet to stay -- because of both its dovishness and
its abject dependence on government money to finance its social and educational
network in Israel's slums, from which the party draws most of its support. As the
largest of the three religious parties, Shas is the most important to Barak. If
Shas leaves, Barak would probably have to reach out to Likud to keep his
government from crumbling.
On the domestic front, Barak has turned away from Israel's experiment with
Thatcherism by reappointing Rabin's finance minister, Avraham Shochat -- who became
the Netanyahu government's whipping boy because he had dared to spend the
taxpayers' money on schools and roads. (He had even wanted to put a tax on stock
Barak also elevated the most dovish Zionist party of all, Meretz, and gave it
control of the most coveted ministry of education.
To make his radical moves -- to give up most, if not all, of the land conquered in
1967, and uproot possibly tens of thousands of settlers from their homes, in
return for peace on every border -- Barak is convinced he needs wide support among
the various warring tribes of Israel.
So far, he's gotten it. He's crafted a broad-based coalition which includes
religious and right-wing parties that are not friends of the peace process. But at
the same time he's built the engine of the government out of dovish parties like
One Israel (the reconstructed Labor Party), Meretz and others. Barak placed all
the decisive ministries -- including defense, which he kept for his own party -- in liberal hands. His politics have always hewed as close as possible to the
mythical Israeli center, but faced with forming a government, he had to make a
choice between right and left, and he chose left.
But if his reputation is to be believed, Barak's motives may have more to do with
self-interest than any particular ideological bent. He is notorious for his
excessive appetite for power and control, earning the nickname "Napoleon" among
He left some of the most talented, popular Labor Party figures out of the upper
reaches of his cabinet, showing a preference for reliable loyalists. Out of 17
ministers, he appointed only one woman, and no Arabs (who make up one-sixth of
Israel's population). This is in keeping with backward Israeli tradition; Barak
isn't any worse than his predecessors, but then he built his campaign around the
promise of "change."
In front of a crowd or on television, he hardly ever manages to inspire, and then
only mildly. Most of the time he's so leaden that his supporters applaud strictly
to be polite, or obedient. Barak comes with no trumpets or doves; those left with
Rabin, and they won't return until the soldiers come home from Lebanon, or the
peace is finally nailed down with the Palestinians, or maybe until Assad gets off
a plane at Ben-Gurion Airport. Israelis won't be easily impressed by Barak, and,
because they're Israelis, will be quick to run him down.
Barak said all along that he wanted an inclusive government, including left,
right and center; religious, ultra-religious and secular. He believes Rabin was
plagued, and ultimately killed, because he tried to make a revolution with only
half the country behind him. Barak wants to complete the revolution -- to draw a
final border between Israel and the Palestinians and let the two peoples go their
Barak has also made it clear he wants to make peace with Syria. That will likely
mean giving back the strategic, and symbolic, territory of the Golan Heights,
which Israel annexed after 1967's Six-Day War. A return of the Golan would
allow Israel's soldiers in Lebanon, who have been fighting since 1982, to finally
But Barak is by no means a peacenik. In his 35-year army career, he got to know
Arabs mainly as blood enemies. (So, of course, did Rabin.) He remains obsessed
with security precautions, with holding on to that radar station on yonder hill,
and he means to make a deal with the Palestinians that Israelis will accept. The
problem -- the old, familiar problem -- is this: What Israelis are ready to give up
isn't even close to what will satisfy the Palestinians.
The Palestinians' line remains unchanged: Arafat has called for a return of all
the land Israel won from Jordan in the Six-Day War to create a Palestinian
state that includes East Jerusalem as the state capital. There
are roughly 350,000 Israelis living in those places now; it is inconceivable to
ask all of them to live under Palestinian rule, or to move them all out. Both
sides are going to have to soften their positions a great deal. Barak, who
swears never to give up any part of East Jerusalem, and wants to hold on to
substantial parts of the West Bank, has a long way to go before he can meet the
Palestinians somewhere in the middle. Nobody knows if he -- or Arafat -- is willing
to go that far.
What is known is that for the first time in three years, Israel has a prime
minister who treats Arabs, even Arafat, with respect -- and a prime minister known to keep his word. This alone gives the peace process a strong, symbolic jolt -- though much of the hard negotiating remains unfinished.