Negotiating for the hearts of Israelis

JERUSALEM, Dec. 13 (JTA) — Israelis are already buzzing about whether Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak can win a referendum on a withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria.

Moreover, they wonder whether he can win it simultaneously with another referendum — on a withdrawal from much of the West Bank in return for peace with the Palestinians.

Such questions surfaced even before this week’s start of Israeli-Syrian negotiations in Washington, bringing together Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa for the highest-level discussions the two sides have ever held.

Indeed, as politicians and pundits focused on the referendums, it was as if they were already thinking of the Israeli-Syrian talks as having been completed, with the results of the discussions now to be brought before the Israeli public for a vote.

The more honest among them are admitting to having been totally surprised by President Clinton’s announcement last week that the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, in limbo for more than three years, would be resuming.

The premier, it is now known, had more than a dozen phone conversations with Clinton in recent weeks about the prospects for reactivating the stalled Syrian track. Every conversation between the U.S. president and the Israeli leader was followed up by one between Clinton and Syrian President Hafez Assad.

Yet Jerusalem insiders were assuring their audiences as recently as two weeks ago that Barak was growing disappointed by Syria’s intransigence.

But quickly wiping the egg off its collective face, the Israeli political community is now knowingly assuring itself that the resumed talks are effectively a “done deal” — and that the focus of the forthcoming drama will not be the negotiating table, but the streets and squares of Israel’s cities, where a great battle for the heart of the nation will be fought.

According to the popular wisdom, the “done deal” includes agreement on the following issues:

• The Golan Heights. Israel withdraws almost to the border with Syria that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War. The “almost” refers to the section of the Sea of Galilee coastline that was in Syrian hands before the war. Barak refuses to restore that situation, insisting that all of the Sea of Galilee remain under Israeli control. In exchange, he is said to be offering Assad the hot springs at Hamat Gader, at the southernmost point of the Golan. The time frame for the withdrawal is still to be negotiated.

• Security guarantees. Israel maintains its presence, under American or international auspices, at a key early warning station atop Mount Hermon, located at the northern tip of the Golan. This is to be accompanied by an extensive Syrian demilitarization on the Golan and all the way to Damascus. Israel also agrees to cut back its troops, but on a lesser scale.

• Diplomatic ties. The two countries agree to full normalized relations, including embassies, trade and open borders.

• U.S. aid. Both Israel and Syria expect massive infusions of American economic — and in Israel’s case, military — aid to help cushion the effects of the agreement.

This, in broad brush strokes, is said to be the deal. Even with marginal changes, it will hardly affect the battle lines that are quickly shaping up across Israel.

Weekend newspaper polls found the opposing camps fairly evenly matched: Yediot Achronot gave the nay-sayers a slight advantage; Ma’ariv had Barak slightly ahead.

People on both sides confidently claim that once their campaign gets into gear the referendum will begin to tilt their way.

Girding for the battle ahead, Barak is calling together the same team of Israeli and American pollsters and statisticians that helped him wrest the premiership from Benjamin Netanyahu in the spring.

On the right, the Likud and the other parties are seeking to put aside their differences in the interests of running a unified campaign and wooing waverers in Barak’s coalition, especially the National Religious Party, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah and Shas.

Some legislators on the right, like Zvi Hendel of the National Unity Party, are openly calling for Israeli Arabs to be barred from participating in the referendum.

“This is a matter for Am Yisrael,” or the People of Israel, “to decide,” Hendel says, “and nobody else.”

Others refrain from saying so publicly, but privately they endorse this viewpoint.

One anti-withdrawal campaigner, former Air Force Commander Herzl Bodinger, said Sunday the referendum needs to be decided by “a massive majority,” adding that “this is not a matter for a 1 percent margin.”

Not surprisingly, such sentiments are roundly criticized by Barak’s supporters.

But beneath their indignation, they know they will need a solid success in the referendum in order to make the decision “stick” — both internationally and in terms of future domestic tranquility.

Meanwhile, Barak is facing the tactical question of whether to hold the referendum on an agreement with Syria simultaneously with one on a peace treaty with the Palestinians.

The premier is committed to reaching a framework agreement with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat on a final peace deal by mid-February.

That agreement is designed to spell out, in broad terms, the shape of the Palestinian entity — and the related issue of Israeli withdrawals from West Bank lands.

That ambitious timetable appears to coincide with the hopes, expressed this week both in Jerusalem and Damascus, that Israel and Syria can reach an agreement within a few months.

At the core of the question facing Barak is whether holding the two referendums at the same time will enhance his prospects of achieving a convincing endorsement of each deal.

On the face of it, presumably not. Over the weekend, movements representing Golan residents and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip agreed to work together in one massive anti-withdrawal campaign.

This would seem to spell huge popular and political resistance to the prime minister’s peace policies.

This same settlers coalition, on the other hand, might galvanize the pro-peace forces in a way that two separate campaigns could never do.

Israelis who are dubious about ceding all of the Golan would be swept into Barak’s camp by their deep-felt opposition to the West Bank settlers, who are widely seen as neo-messianic.

Similarly, people who are wary about handing back biblical sites in the West Bank might be drawn into supporting the peace package in the referendum because it means peace with Syria, Israel’s last “strategic” enemy.

Just as none of the pundits knew that the breakthrough with Syria was imminent, so, too, no one genuinely knows what Barak is planning — whether he intends to fuse the two peace tracks together into one referendum or would rather keep them staggered.

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