Barak portrayed as cold to plight of handicapped

JERUSALEM, Nov. 9 (JTA) — Some Israelis were hoping this week that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat doesn’t read Israeli newspapers or watch Israeli television.

That way he wouldn’t have seen how Prime Minister Ehud Barak suddenly caved in Sunday to the demands of the country’s handicapped population — after he stood firm through a 37-day strike by the disabled at the Finance Ministry.

Only hours earlier, Finance Minister Avraham Shochat and his senior aides were saying negotiations over stipends for the disabled were effectively stalemated and that the government would implement unilaterally what it was prepared to provide.

But ministers at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting apparently felt the strike was generating too much bad public relations. Shochat — and Barak — were persuaded to back off.

Barak, later welcoming a delegation of wheelchair-bound strikers into his office, said there “has never been a government that has been so sensitive and done so much” for the handicapped population.

While across-the-board increases in benefits for the handicapped will cost the government some $33 million during the next two years, the strike had taken on a significance beyond money, mainly due to the strikers’ heart-wrenching rhetoric.

Their stories of hardship moved the nation. Their obvious discomfort as they milled about the foyer of the Finance Ministry grew into a cause celebre.

Eventually — perhaps belatedly, in the view of some of his supporters — Barak caught on to the potential political significance of this welling up of public sympathy that threatened to turn into outrage.

People were beginning to say, on the air and in print, that he was heartless, too coldly calculating and insufficiently aware of how less-fortunate citizens live and struggle.

One day after he backed off, Barak flew off to Paris, where he and Arafat addressed a meeting of Socialists and Social Democrats from 139 nations. Also on Monday, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators launched talks for a final peace agreement in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Plainly, Barak’s spin doctors hoped these diplomatic developments would quickly dull the memory of the awkward strike and its equally awkward conclusion.

In large measure, they did. But observers here are still taking the time to ponder Barak’s domestic aims and agenda.

His campaign promises earlier this year, after all, were chock full of social and economic pledges.

An elderly hospital patient lying in a corridor came to symbolize, in Barak’s television campaign, the crisis in health care services and the candidate’s determination to fix it.

Barak visiting schools; Barak in university labs; Barak dwelling on the need to drastically overhaul the country’s educational infrastructure — these, too, were images from his campaign.

Yet the new government’s first budget, now making its way through the Knesset, provides little in the way of immediate relief to pupils, patients, the elderly, students — or indeed the handicapped or the poor.

The leitmotif of the budget is a return to economic growth and to job creation, with the assurance of a “trickle-down” effect that all will eventually feel — in two to three years.

For diehard socialists, the Labor-led government’s policy is much too market-oriented, with too little government intervention on behalf of the underprivileged sectors of society.

Barak is accused in these quarters of basing his economic recovery program first and foremost on making the rich richer still.

Longer school days, more hospital buildings, more classrooms — these dreams are being curtailed for the moment as the new government proceeds more cautiously and conservatively than had been generally expected.

To say, as some argue, that Barak is incapable of conducting a bold peace policy and a vigorous domestic program at the same time is simplistic — as well as insulting to a man noted for his energy and intellectual gifts.

Nor is it sufficient just to suggest that Barak has put peace on the front burner and deliberately consigned the economic and social planks of his platform to later in his term.

Rather, the prime minister’s options and decisions need to be seen through the prism of his coalition calculations.

While his coalition holds a comfortable legislative majority — 73 of the Knesset’s 120 members — it is nevertheless based on a balance of diverse and conflicting interests.

Any attempt to erode state funding for the Orthodox sector would risk the loss of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party. Any effort to cut off the settlers from their various channels of state support would drive out the National Religious Party.

Yet those are precisely the budgets Barak would have to trim if and when he undertakes the radical redistribution of government largesse than his platform promised.

A new order of national priorities invariably means less for some and more for others.

At this point, with the hard issues of peacemaking about to be addressed in the final-status talks, Barak is far from eager to shake the boat — for fear some of his coalition partners may fall out.

His more pressing priority is to keep the government as large as possible for as long as possible.

In this way, he hopes, if an agreement is eventually achieved, the national referendum that he has promised for any final peace deal with the Palestinians will become a massive vote of confidence in his peace policy.

The last thing he needs now is for his precariously balanced coalition to start wrangling within itself over domestic policy-making.

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