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News Analysis: Barak’s Bad Luck is Bad News for Peace and His Government

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It was Black Monday for Prime Minister Ehud Barak. His peace policy was reeling, following Syrian President Hafez Assad’s rejection the day before of Barak’s peace proposals, which were advanced by no less an advocate than President Clinton.

And his coalition was tottering, too, after the attorney general decided to launch a criminal investigation of the spiritual leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, which has been locked in an ongoing battle with another major partner in Barak’s governing coalition, the secular Meretz Party.

The attorney general ordered the investigation after Rabbi Ovadia Yosef called last week on his followers to lay a curse on Education Minister Yossi Sarid, the head of Meretz.

Where both Syria and the criminal probe were concerned, there were still voices to be heard assuring one another, and seeking to assure the prime minister, that all was not as black as it looked.

The “grave is not yet sealed” was how some officials described the all but moribund Syrian peace process.

The head of the Israel Defense Force, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, was among those taking this tack, suggesting in a Knesset briefing that there might yet be life after death on the Syrian track — despite the slap in the face that Assad had effectively delivered to Clinton, with the whole world watching, when they failed Sunday in Geneva to find a basis for resuming Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Observers attribute Mofaz’s optimism to the army’s reluctance to embark on a withdrawal from Lebanon without an accompanying agreement involving Damascus.

Mofaz and his fellow officers are warning that a unilateral withdrawal could go awry if there are continued attacks by Hezbollah or other terrorists against Israeli border settlements after the pullback, and if the IDF replies with massive force against Lebanon’s infrastructure.

The Syrian army could quickly get sucked in, they warn, and full-scale warfare could erupt.

Similarly on the domestic front, Barak was assured by members of his Labor Party, and indeed by ministers in Shas, that it is not a foregone conclusion that Shas would withdraw from the coalition because of the criminal investigation, which party members see as a grave insult to their revered leader.

Shas ministers were still negotiating behind the scenes with their Labor counterparts over the substance of the crisis that triggered Yosef’s outburst against Sarid: the minister’s handling of Shas’ financially troubled religious school system, which provides the party with its main pillar of political support.

Sarid has been insisting that the deputy education minister, a member of Shas, have no role in running the Shas school system. He has threatened to pull Meretz out of the government if Barak overrules him on this.

Despite the diehard optimists, however, most observers here feel that even if the Syrian negotiations continue through some back channel, there is unlikely to be any breakthrough before Barak’s July deadline for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.

Some of these observers predict, in fact, that Barak will now speed up the pullout to May or June.

The Clinton administration, whose effort in Geneva was widely seen as a last- ditch attempt to reach a comprehensive Middle East peace before the president leaves office, will gradually grow less effective on the world scene as the U.S. election campaign proceeds.

The talks in Geneva are understood to have stalled over a tiny, but symbolically significant sliver of land: the eastern coastline of the Sea of Galilee.

Barak has vowed that Syrian soldiers will not “dangle their feet” in the Galilee, Israel’s chief source of water. His pledge has become a mantra: There would be scant support in a referendum on a final peace deal with Syria if he were to abandon it.

For Assad, on the other hand, the memory of Syrian soldiers doing precisely that before the 1967 Six-Day War apparently burns bright — and he is determined to restore that situation.

Assad reportedly spurned Barak’s proposal that Syria agree to let Israel hold a narrow strip of land along the eastern shore in return for the el-Hama hot springs, located southeast of the sea, which were clearly part of Palestine under the 1923 British-French demarcation of the border between Palestine and Syria.

Assad has maintained throughout the recent years of on-and-off negotiations that he does not recognize the 1923 international border and that he would only accept the June 4, 1967, line.

On that date, Syrian soldiers were in occupation of el-Hama — so, in Assad’s view, it is not Barak’s to cede.

Beyond the impasse over substance, the failed Geneva summit will almost certainly have a negative impact on Israeli public opinion, which is already wary of Assad’s peaceable intentions. The perceived humiliation of Clinton in Geneva will likewise not go over well in Israel.

These are vital considerations, given that any agreement that Israel reaches with Syria must pass a referendum.

The erosion of public support for what is now a highly hypothetical peace policy will in turn have a negative impact on Barak’s ability to hold his disparate coalition together.

A possible peace treaty with Syria served as something of a bond, since both Shas and Meretz, despite their vast differences on so many other issues, were both committed to a land-for-peace policy with Damascus.

With Syria’s latest rejection of Barak’s proposals, that bond will inevitably weaken.

Barak’s aides say he will press ahead with the Palestinian track — but here, too, the domestic difficulties are likely to be no less dangerous for the premier.

If the pro-settler National Religious Party secedes over giving the Palestinian Authority additional portions of the West Bank, a disaffected Shas, seething over Yosef’s “victimization” by the “establishment,” would probably leave, too — leaving Barak with no majority in the Knesset.

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