JERUSALEM, Aug. 10 (JTA) — By the time U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrives in the region early next month for her peacemaking trip, the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations may perhaps have improved. But even if there is an end to the current round of daily disagreements regarding the land-for-security Wye accord, there is a growing number of people who are less than impressed with Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s initial essays at diplomacy. In government circles, there is a widespread discomfort over the gap that has opened up between the new prime minister’s high intellectual attainments and what they view as his significantly less impressive interpersonal achievements. As a result, while the huge fund of sympathy for Barak and his policies is far from exhausted, it has been discernibly depleted. Summing up the assessment of the premier, one minister called Barak’s recent dealings with the Palestinians “the mistake of a political neophyte.” Observers point to what they describe as a major blunder Barak made during his whirlwind round of meetings with world and regional leaders during his first weeks in office. At that time, Barak went public with his plans to propose a revision of the Wye accord. Pointing out that the agreement was negotiated by an Israeli government fundamentally reluctant to proceed with the Oslo peace process, Barak warned that the Israeli withdrawal from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank under Wye would leave several Jewish settlements isolated within territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. It would be far better, he suggested, to postpone implementation of portions of the accord until after the start of talks on a permanent Israeli-Palestinian agreement. While some of the arguments were considered quite cogent, once Barak had made his thoughts public, Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat was quick to reject them and to demand the full and meticulous implementation of Wye. On one score, at least, Barak has been right on target. He foresaw, and still foresees, a rash of terror incidents as Palestinian radicals attempt to sour an already fragile peace process. His prediction was borne out Tuesday, when a Palestinian twice drove his car into a group of Israeli soldiers hitchhiking on a road some 30 miles west of Jerusalem before Israeli troops shot and killed him. Twelve people suffered light to moderate injuries. No group has claimed responsibility for the incident, which Barak labeled a “criminal and cowardly” terrorist attack. At the same time, he warned that Israelis can expect further attacks “by radical groups that oppose the peace process.” He gave no indication, however, that he would let the attack disrupt Israeli-Palestinian peace moves — a stance that likely would have been taken by his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. Several other incidents have occurred in recent days that also could have derailed peace talks. Last week, two Israeli settlers were wounded in a shooting attack for which Hamas later claimed responsibility, and on Tuesday, violent clashes erupted around Joseph’s Tomb in the West Bank town of Nablus. In another incident that took place in the predawn hours Tuesday, Israeli police stepped in quickly to close up an entrance to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount that Islamic officials opened earlier this week. Barak said Tuesday that Islamic officials violated the law when they excavated the opening at the Al-Aksa Mosque, and he praised the police response. Barak’s stance was viewed as a signal that he would take a tough line regarding the status quo in Jerusalem’s Old City. While few would doubt that Barak, a former army chief of staff, is soft on security issues, he is being criticized for the peremptory manner in which he deals with some members of his own One Israel bloc. It has been widely noted that after just a month in power, Barak has managed to alienate some of his ministers. People like Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Public Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami feel they are not being consulted over the diplomatic process, despite their experience and proven expertise in this area. Indeed, there is growing criticism throughout the political community of Barak’s apparently deliberate refusal to put in place any serious consultative machinery involving ministers and top officials. Instead, he telephones people individually, often late at night, and launches into long briefings that leave them feeling fully clued in — but at the same time effectively ignored. Specifically, the critics say, a “Kitchen Cabinet” of top ministers, had one existed, would have steered Barak away from going public with his Wye revision plan before presenting it to Arafat. Kitchen Cabinets of four or at most five participants have been the norm in Israel since Golda Meir’s day, as they are in many parliamentary democracies. By contrast, the Security Cabinet, a body mandated by law, often includes more than half of the full Cabinet and is therefore unwieldy — and full of leaks as well. Will Barak’s secretiveness and his suspiciousness toward his fellow ministers ease as he grows into his job? Some of those who know him say these characteristics are deeply ingrained from his army years and are unlikely to change now. But others suggest that embarrassing rebuffs, like the one dealt him by Arafat, may provide him with a crash course on how to seek advice before making his moves.
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