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Barak Good-humored, Defiant in Talks with U.S. Jewish Leaders

Efforts to arrange another peace summit with Yasser Arafat may have failed, but it seems Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak did not leave New York completely empty-handed.

After a round of meetings with world leaders and regional powers at the U.N. Millennium Summit, Barak and his delegation were cheered by what they say is a palpable shift in international opinion: in favor of Israel and its willingness to “go the extra mile” in negotiations with the Palestinians, and against Arafat for his intransigence and inflexibility.

There is reportedly puzzlement and consternation that Arafat continues to reject what is presumably the best offer an Israeli leader can make.

Israel is accustomed to generally hostile treatment by the United Nations. But in meeting after meeting last week with heads of state ranging from Jacques Chirac of France and Gerhard Schroeder of Germany to Yoshiro Mori of Japan and Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, the Israeli delegation was surprised by how well their peace efforts have been received, said Colette Avital, a member of the Knesset who traveled with Barak.

“It’s almost not even necessary to convince people of our position,” Avital, a former counsel general in New York, told JTA.

“They see we’ve done our utmost and that the ball is in the other court.”

Still, world opinion may not be enough to keep Barak in power.

So it is not surprising that Barak soon appeared to be turning his focus to Jewish public opinion and Israeli domestic issues.

Barak spoke twice at length to American Jews on Sunday: for 90 minutes to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, then for another hour in a folksy gathering of students, volunteers and professionals of the United Jewish Appeal of New York.

During the meetings, Barak, appearing upbeat and good-humored, defended his apparent willingness to compromise on Jerusalem, touted his economic record, pledged to heal the yawning religious-secular schism that plagues the Jewish state, and vowed to fight if the opposition attempts to bring him down.

At the first meeting, held in a mirrored, glittery hotel conference room, the audience, perhaps cautious not to antagonize the Israeli premier, asked generally gentle, softball questions.

Yet the niceties ended with a question from Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. Klein articulated what seemed to be at the fore of most minds, pressing Barak on concessions he has been willing to make regarding Jerusalem’s religious sites and historic quarters.

Klein noted the opposition it has generated from Shimon Peres, Leah Rabin and one public opinion poll. Rabin, in fact, was quoted last week saying her husband, assassinated in November 1995, would be “spinning in his grave” if he knew what had been offered to the Palestinians. Klein then went one step further, asking Barak what mandate he has to even offer such concessions.

“I have a mandate through the ballot, not the polls,” Barak responded, adding that he operates “not by weather vane, but by inner compass.”

He had earlier spoken of the “calculated risks” he was ready to take to achieve peace, but now, shaking his fist as if banging an invisible gavel, Barak declared, “There will never be an Israeli leader who will give up sovereignty over the Temple Mount to the Palestinians.”

The statement drew loud applause, as it did at the second gathering, when Barak repeated it almost verbatim.

Afterward, dozens of Jewish leaders crowded around Barak, straining to shake his hand.

The second event, at UJA headquarters, was held under tight security. Invitation-only guests, numbering some 300, began arriving two-and-a-half hours early, as security guards swept through the building with bomb-sniffing dogs.

Rather than address the audience from the front, Barak sat on a bar stool, surrounded by the crowd, in an American- style town hall meeting.

Again, asked about the peace process, Barak answered with a series of expressions tailored to an American audience, like “It takes two to tango” and “We’ll leave no stone unturned.”

The audience asked an array of questions, from smoking-related deaths in Israel, to helping raise the standard of living for Palestinians, to uniting the various religious denominations.

Indeed, the pluralism issue was a hot topic at both meetings. While threatening to abolish Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, Barak said he “never initiated a secular revolution.” Rather, he will work to create Israel’s first constitution and a “modern, democratic state,” while being sensitive to and balancing the needs and traditions of the fervently Orthodox.

“We do not intend to separate religion from the state,” he said.

“We are more modest. We intend to separate religion from politics.”

However, when asked how he could be so optimistic about even holding on to power, given the current political climate, Barak countered: “I fought very hard to become prime minister. I do not intend to leave it easily.”

The UJA crowd gave Barak three standing ovations.

However, even as he vowed to fight on, his former Cabinet minister, Natan Sharansky, predicted Monday a national unity government is imminent.

The former interior minister is also a key figure in a new movement, OneJerusalem, which plans to lobby against any efforts to divide the Holy City.

Speaking before another gathering of the Presidents Conference, Sharansky gave a hint of how emotional domestic debate would be should the fate of Jerusalem be determined by referendum.

Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik, told the gathering what Jerusalem meant to him, the 1 million-plus Soviet emigres in Israel and Jews around the world.

In 1967, he was one of millions of “absolutely assimilated Russian Jews, lost to the Jewish people.” Until the Six- Day War, he said. Stirred by the reunification of Jerusalem and the Soviet anti-Israel, anti-Zionist rhetoric, hundreds of thousands of Jews suddenly began to utter “next year in Jerusalem.”

Today, said Sharansky, “What I’m afraid of is, just as the reunification was some spiritual, mystic event for our people,” an agreement “that divides Jerusalem may undermine, even destroy, that connection between Jews who are in Zion and those who are not.”

Sharansky, who described himself as a “dove” among the Soviet emigres in Israel, said Jerusalem is the “common denominator, the glue” that holds Jews together, and Arafat wants the Holy City because “Jerusalem is our soul, and that’s how he can destroy us.”

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