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As elections approach, what makes Barak tick?

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JERUSALEM, Jan. 9 (JTA) – His standing may be slipping rapidly in the polls as Israel’s Feb. 6 election approaches, but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak continues plugging away at the peace process with a doggedness that has supporters and detractors alike pondering his motives.

Beyond his immediate electoral considerations – and it’s not clear whether progress toward a peace deal that includes deep Israeli concessions would ultimately help or hurt Barak at the polls – observers say Barak is driven by a military-style sense of mission and an overweening ambition to stake a place in Israeli history as the leader who negotiated ultimate peace with the Palestinians.

Barak’s willingness to make decisions on the country’s most pressing existential issues – acting with a minority government and under the deadline of impending elections – has aroused intense criticism from opponents and even from left-wing academics who raise the specter of abuse of power.

Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein became the latest in a line of prominent Israelis to criticize the premier’s actions, firing off a letter to Barak last week questioning the legitimacy of trying to make history during an election period.

Recent opinion polls show Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon widening his lead over Barak to as much as 28 percentage points. Barak shrugs off the polls, and rejects any suggestion that he step aside at the last minute to allow former Prime Minister Shimon Peres – who stands a better chance against Sharon, according to the polls – to represent Labor.

Pundits increasingly say that Barak, who earned his stripes in the military on daring commando raids behind enemy lines, is on a suicide mission. Yet officials close to Barak brush off the attorney general’s letter as politically motivated, and reject mounting criticism that he is trying to secure a peace deal simply to improve his chances of reelection.

“If Barak wanted to keep his seat, the easiest thing would be to bring Sharon into the government,” said an official from the prime minister’s campaign headquarters. “He is guided strictly by Israel’s national and security interests and will bring any agreement to the people before signing.

“The prime minister is a man who does not bend under pressure,” the official added. “The more pressure on him, the more rational he becomes.”

After Barak resigned last month and triggered a snap election for prime minister, the conventional wisdom was that his only hope was to secure a historic peace agreement.

But that logic may no longer hold. Clinton’s proposals to divide Jerusalem and cede sovereignty over the Temple Mount appear increasingly unpalatable to Israelis, especially as the ongoing violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has shaken faith, even on the left, in the possibility of an “end to the conflict” with the Palestinians.

In recent days, sources say, Barak has despaired of reaching a peace agreement before the elections, and now is aiming just for a declaration by President Clinton summing up progress in the peace process to this point.

Also unclear are the personal and psychological factors motivating Barak. With a tradition of secrecy and centralization of power gleaned from decades in the army, Barak allows only a tiny handful of trusted insiders into his counsel.

However, from the analogies he uses and allusions to his role models, it appears that Barak dreams of entering the pantheon of great Israeli leaders – such as former Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin – who were visionary enough to read strategic realities years before their contemporaries, and valiant enough to stay the course despite their detractors.

“He’s a very megalomaniacal person, and he really put into his head that he would be the one that signs the final agreement” with the Palestinians, Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev said of Barak. “What really drives him is personal megalomania and an incredible amount of arrogance.

“That’s what led him to make a historic mistake,” Segev continued. “Rather than continue the Oslo road” of gradual agreements, Barak “put it into his head that he can reach a final settlement and try to impose it on” Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Upon taking office in July 1999, Barak sought to redraw the rules of Middle Eastern diplomacy, dispensing with the extended and leisurely haggling characteristic of the Arab market in favor of strict deadlines that he believed would force Arab leaders to make peace forthwith or expose their intransigence.

Only one deadline – for an Israeli military withdrawal from Lebanon – was kept, and it is seen as one of the few incontrovertible successes of Barak’s tenure. Other deadlines, in negotiations with Syria and the Palestinian Authority, proved ephemeral.

A gifted chess player, Barak has laid elaborate and far-sighted plans that contain only one basic flaw in both domestic Israeli politics and his negotiations with the Arab world: a misreading of his adversaries’ intentions. Perhaps, some say, by resigning and calling elections within 60 days, Barak sought to force Arafat to cease prevaricating and come to an agreement quickly, rather than face a more stubborn, Likud-led government.

If so, that logic also appeared to be unraveling, as Arafat waited so long to respond to a late December American peace proposal that he effectively killed it.

“There will be no agreement signed before elections,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at the Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute. “This election will either be a referendum on the outline of a peace agreement or it will be an election on the question of who should lead the country in the wake of the collapse of the peace process.”

Some political analysts argue that the only hope for Barak is to secure at least a return to the negotiating table. He then could try to convince Israeli voters he was not willing to make peace at any price and had not crossed any of his “red lines,” since he had not signed a formal agreement to divide Jerusalem.

Although a long shot, such a strategy could at least let Barak argue that he is making a serious effort to end the conflict, in contrast to Sharon, who has said a final agreement is impossible in the foreseeable future.

“Barak needs some sort of perception that there is hope, that would force Sharon to put up an alternative policy,” said Joel Peters, a political science professor at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. “He will want to create an atmosphere that shows there is something going on.”

The official at Barak’s campaign headquarters confirmed that this is a “realistic” strategy and is under consideration.

Then again, Barak may have little choice but to press ahead with peace negotiations if he wishes to safeguard Israel’s reputation in the world. Neither he nor Arafat wants to bear international blame for causing the peace process to collapse.

Furthermore, though Clinton may now have little chance of securing his legacy as the man who brought peace to the Middle East, he does not want his tenure to end on Jan. 20 in disaster.

Clinton “will want to leave with the parties together rather than apart,” Peters said. “There is also an interest in setting up a framework for continuity and not to leave a vacuum before the next U.S. administration comes in.”

Whatever Barak’s motivations, polls continue to indicate that Israelis are prepared to punish him harshly less than two years after they catapulted him to power.

Barak’s fundamental problem, explained Barry Rubin, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, is the continuing Palestinian violence and the resurgence of terror attacks, even within Israel proper.

Even a new declaration of principles or a fresh round of peace talks may not help if Barak cannot restore calm on the ground. Similar problems sunk Peres’ candidacy in 1996, even though he began the campaign with an enormous lead as the inheritor of Rabin’s peace mantle.

Barak’s “problem is the continuation of violence in a context in which people do not believe that successful negotiations will bring the violence to an end,” Rubin said.

Many Israelis, he added, increasingly believe that the Palestinians have completely abandoned the Oslo process “not only in their tactics but in their goals,” which once again appear to be aimed at “eliminating the state of Israel.”

With little going his way, another official in the Prime Minister’s Office said Barak must employ negative campaigning against Sharon.

“The only strategy now is to scare the people,” the official said.

“They are trying to scare the Arabs into voting Barak by reminding them of Sharon’s role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres” during the 1982 Lebanon War, “and trying to scare the people by saying the only alternative to talks is a deterioration toward an all-out war.”

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