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Barak faces internal unrest

JERUSALEM, Feb. 14 (JTA) — Eight months into what he himself has termed the crucial first year of his premiership, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is facing serious unrest in the ranks.

Several of Barak’s Cabinet ministers are publicly airing their dissatisfaction with the escalating military situation in southern Lebanon and the latest deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian talks.

The politicians’ murmurings come as Israeli soldiers, too, voice their own misgivings about the fighting in Lebanon, where Hezbollah gunmen have killed at least seven Israeli soldiers during the last three weeks.

Taken together, the developments are prompting renewed questions about whether Barak’s ambitious plans for regional peace are realistic.

The unprecedented criticism voiced by active duty soldiers has hit particularly hard.

“We don’t want to be the last IDF men to die in Lebanon,” one group of Israel Defense Force soldiers told two Israeli reporters last week during the most intensive fighting in Lebanon in months.

Reserve soldiers have occasionally criticized government policy in the past. Indeed, it was a wave of such criticism in the reserve army which, in the view of many observers, prompted Israel’s withdrawal in 1984-1985 from the heart of Lebanon to the nine-mile-wide security zone that Israel carved out at the time to protect its northern communities.

This week, Maj. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the regional commander in charge of the Lebanon campaign, reportedly called the complaining soldiers a bunch of crybabies.

The frustration of the army brass undoubtedly reflects the political discomfort that Barak must feel reading the headlines about the dissident soldiers — to say nothing of the all-too-frequent stories and pictures telling the heartbreaking tales of the latest 19-year-old Israeli killed by a Hezbollah anti-tank missile.

But Barak’s problem was compounded this week when it became publicly known that several of his own ministers are balking at his Lebanon policy.

Hard-liners like Interior Minister Natan Sharansky and doves like Agriculture Minister Chaim Oron are questioning the premier’s assertion that he needs until April or May to determine whether there is a chance of withdrawing from Lebanon as part of a negotiated deal with Syria, or whether Israel should prepare to withdraw unilaterally.

Barak has been reiterating his commitment to have the army out of Lebanon, one way or the other, by July 7. But the dissenting ministers say this is too long to keep up the costly exchanges with Hezbollah.

In essence, these ministers tend to agree with Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s that the situation in Lebanon should be divorced from overall peace negotiations with Syria.

While most of his dissenting ministers may not share Sharon’s ultimate goal of heading off Israeli-Syrian talks altogether to avert an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, they agree with his opposition to Barak’s linkage of a withdrawal from Lebanon and an accord with Syria.

During Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Barak got strong support for his strategy from his foreign minister, David Levy, and from Education Minister Yossi Sarid.

Even Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, a longtime advocate of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, said he was “at one with” the prime minister’s efforts to try for a negotiated withdrawal during the weeks ahead — and to stay put for the moment in Lebanon in order to achieve this.

These ministers backed the premier’s grim assertion that the deaths of seven soldiers, however saddening, must not be allowed to dictate a nation’s national security policy.

But the narrow backing he won for his approach on Lebanon must have been little comfort for Barak — given the distinct slippage in Cabinet solidarity over his entire peace strategy.

In tough one-on-one meetings with Barak over the weekend, a number of key ministers are reported to have expressed their deep anxiety over the current deadlock on the Israeli-Palestinian track.

Sunday was the date on which Israel and the Palestinian Authority were to have concluded a framework agreement accord for a final peace accord.

The two sides had also planned to reach the final accord by September — that is, before the U.S. presidential election, so that President Clinton could successfully conclude his work as Middle East peace broker.

Ironically it was Barak who pressed for this rigid and ambitious timetable, publicly proclaiming the February and September target dates.

Barak has said repeatedly that what he does not achieve on the peace front during his first year in office — with Clinton still in the White House — will be much more difficult to achieve later.

The Palestinians, too, have often expressed their confidence in Clinton.

Yet the talks advanced haltingly, as the Feb. 13 deadline loomed ominously nearer.

Far from making progress on the final peace accord, the two sides became bogged down over the past few weeks in disagreements regarding Israeli withdrawals from additional portions of the West Bank.

Now that the Feb. 13 deadline has come and gone, the framework agreement is effectively dead — and the Palestinians are speaking of a rupture in Barak’s relationship with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Barak, for his part, barely bothers to conceal his view that Israel’s foremost interest is to make a peace deal with Syria.

He has all but stated publicly that if the talks with Syria go forward, the Palestinians can wait.

For now, the Israeli-Syrian talks have been suspended. But Barak, basing himself on American and Egyptian assessments, is confident that the talks will resume soon and move swiftly toward an agreement.

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