Barak’s Next Agenda: Shoring Up Home Front


After an exhausting two weeks of peace talks in the Maryland mountains, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak returned home Wednesday to hurriedly form a new coalition government before Wednesday’s Knesset recess and to begin addressing domestic issues that have been subsumed by peace efforts.

Although in the past Barak has shifted his peace efforts to the Syrians when Palestinian peace efforts waned — as they did Tuesday in the collapse of the Camp David summit — Colette Avital of Barak’s One Israel Party said this would not happen now.

“I don’t know it’s the right time,” she said, referring to the election earlier this month of Bashar Assad to succeed his late father as president.

And besides, she said, “We have to take a break.”

Many believe Barak must use this time to deal with tensions in Israeli society, from secular-religious conflicts to the need for better health care and more jobs. One Knesset member, Naomi Blumenthal of the opposition Likud Party, has complained for months that Barak has turned a blind eye to these issues and has yet to fulfill his campaign pledge of finding 300,000 new jobs.

Since both the Syrians and Palestinians have been unwilling to compromise for peace, “we can expect to get a socioeconomic prime minister par excellence, Yossi Veter wrote in the Haaretz daily.

“Barak can no longer place his eggs in the peace process basket and is going to have to rush to the old, sick woman in the hallway, to the unemployed in the labor offices, and to the development towns, to ask their forgiveness.”

At the same time, Israeli security forces braced for possible Palestinian violence and authorized settlers to use live ammunition to prevent rioters from overrunning their homes.

Despite praise of Barak by President Bill Clinton for displaying “courage, vision and an understanding of the historical importance of the moment” at the Camp David talks, there was a lukewarm response by some at home. Israeli radio commentator Yaron Dekel said Barak “looks more and more like a loser, incapable of concluding peace with the Palestinians, just as he failed with Syria at the beginning of the year.”

But Barak, who was elected a year ago promising to make peace with the Syrians and Palestinians, has not given up. At a press conference Tuesday before returning home, he said that although the “vision of peace suffered a major blow, I believe that with good faith, goodwill on all sides, it can recuperate.”

Barak put the blame for the talks’ failure squarely on the shoulders of Arafat, saying he “somehow hesitated to take the historic decisions that were needed in order to put an end” to 100 years of conflict. Clinton essentially said the same thing.

Arafat, who left the U.S. without a word to reporters, arrived in the Gaza Strip to a hero’s welcome with thousands of supporters dancing in the streets and singing nationalist songs. Banners proclaimed “The Palestinian state is the sacred right” and “We are following Arafat on the way to Jerusalem.”

They were referring to Arafat’s refusal to compromise on his insistence that all of East Jerusalem must become the capital of a Palestinian state. Barak reportedly was willing to give the Palestinians autonomy over Arab areas of East Jerusalem and to even accept an American proposal for joint sovereignty over them. But a Palestinian source was quoted as saying that Arafat viewed the American proposals as “biased toward Israel” and that the talks collapsed because Barak offered Arafat only some form of access to the Al-Aksa Mosque.

Still, Saeb Erekat, a close Arafat aide, was upbeat at the conclusion of the talks, saying “the prospect of an agreement is much stronger than ever before. What happened at Camp David are seeds that will grow very fast.” Another Palestinian source spoke of talks resuming next month.

On another key issue, the right of Palestinians to return to their former homes in Israel, Barak reportedly refused to endorse a U.S. proposal that would explicitly state the right of return for a limited number of Palestinian refugees. Arafat rejected a compromise proposal that inserted the words “family reunification.”

Despite the summit’s failure, Israel’s consul general in New York, Shmuel Sisso, said it was significant that “this is the first time we dealt openly with the refugee issue and Jerusalem.”

“For 52 years we never spoke about this. They are very hard issues because we cannot accept refugees in Israel and [Palestinian leaders] have never told their people that coming back to Israel is a dream that will never come true,” he said.

The View From Israel

All sides of the Israeli political spectrum had their own assessment of the talks. Zalman Shoval, the head of Likud’s foreign relations department, said that although he was sorry the talks failed, it was not unexpected.

“The chances of achieving an agreement Israel could live with were very, very slim,” he said. “I’m sorry the summit took place because it may have pushed the chances of getting results with the Palestinians backwards rather than forward.

“When you try to come to an agreement by going not an extra mile but an extra 10 miles — with the prestige of the leader of the free world [on the line] — and you still can’t reach an agreement, you reach the conclusion that we might not really have a peace partner.”

Avital said there was “no way to achieve anything if from the beginning the [Palestinian] attitude was that you will give and we will take. Peace should be a win-win situation, and [Arafat] wanted to get everything and not to give. He claimed he had made all his concessions.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” she said. “[Barak] put up a very, very difficult fight and was very, very patient. But there was only so much he could do. And to a certain extent he surprised even us that he was so flexible and forthcoming, so willing to listen.”

Barak said that all Israeli offers made during the talks are “null and void,” but Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said: “You cannot erase what you said.” And in any future talks Arafat would not make concessions on points Barak had been willing to make, he said.

“Israel cannot do more” in terms of concessions, Shoval said, adding that Barak appeared relieved that the summit collapsed.

Barak “may not have been at peace with himself because of the proposals he made,” Shoval explained. “As a political person, he may have realized that not only did he not have the support of the Knesset but of the country. There is not much chance that an agreement that would have given up the Jordan Valley, parts of Jerusalem, returned some refugees and made unacceptable proposals on settlements would have been approved [in a referendum].”

There was speculation that Barak would reach out to Likud and seek to form a unity government. Shoval said that would be possible only if Barak agreed to a new set of “red lines” on all the issues and not those he was willing to cross in the last two weeks.

Raphael Israeli, professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University, said the opposition, “which crucified Barak before he went [to Washington], could possibly retract their attacks and perhaps even rally around the prime minister if they sense the possibility of joining a national unity government.”

“They can no longer accuse Barak of selling out,” he said. “Of course, there will be some who will continue to say that Barak has already offered too much. They’ll say that it’s lucky that the Palestinians rejected what Barak offered.”

Whether Barak will be able to reassemble his coalition following the defection of three parties on the eve of the Camp David talks isn’t yet clear, Israeli said.

During Barak’s stay in the U.S., Israeli noted, “another dynamic has been building up: some say that Barak has already gone so far and lost so many of his coalition partners, the only option is new elections. God knows where it’s going to end.”

Although some Palestinians in the West Bank hailed the breakdown in talks and called for renewed fighting against Israel, Professor Gerald Steinberg, director of the Conflict Resolution Program at Bar-Ilan University, said he doubted there would be another intifada.

“My own view is that Arafat can turn violence up and down like a valve. It’s possible he can lose control, but I think the Palestinian Authority is the one that stokes violence,” Steinberg said.

Yehudit Tayer, a spokeswoman for the Yesha council of Jewish settlers, said she was relieved that Israel is no longer bound by the concessions it made at the talks. Tayer, one of the driving forces behind the right wing’s stepped-up campaign to block territorial concessions and safeguard settler interests, also expressed disgust at the way Barak conducted himself at the negotiating table.

“It’s obvious that the prime minister was willing to make concessions that would not have ended the conflict,” she insisted. “We were very lucky that the other players — Arafat and the Palestinian Authority — were honest enough to admit their demands.”

The left wing, too, is preparing for battle. A large pro-Barak rally is slated for Saturday night in Tel Aviv. According to press reports, the city canceled a free Israeli Philharmonic concert scheduled for the same night, so as not to detract from the force of the political gathering.

Shoval welcomed the declaration at the end of the talks in which both sides promised to refrain from any unilateral actions. He said he hoped that means Arafat would carry through on his earlier promise to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state on Sept. 13 if there is no peace treaty.

“He can declare a state on Sept. 13 or thereafter,” said Israeli, the Hebrew University professor, “but will he have a state? They declared a state in Algeria in 1988, but the fact that they [had to] do it again means it was nil. Others will recognize the state but if Israel does not, it will have little meaning.”

The Palestinians think otherwise.

“We will have a state and it will be recognized by most of the international community,” insisted Marwan, the owner of a small jewelry shop in the Old City of Jerusalem. “Israel may not acknowledge our existence, but so what? We didn’t acknowledge Israel for decades, but that didn’t mean it didn’t exist.”

American Reaction

Meanwhile, American Jewish groups put their own spin on this week’s developments.

Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said the failure of the summit and Ehud Barak’s unbending red lines on Jerusalem have a silver lining.

“We console ourselves with the knowledge that Israel’s security is in good hands,” he said. “One of the positive things that happened is that this put to rest the idea that Barak was ready to give away the store. Now there’s reason to believe he is just as careful about Israel’s security interests as anybody else.”

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, remarked: “We need to have our seatbelts fastened for what could be a very difficult period, when Israel will again need sympathetic friends and supporters.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the “rhetoric of violence” before the summit increased the likelihood of a dangerous escalation in tensions if it failed.

“What this can do is give violence a kind of legitimacy,” he said, warning that Tuesday’s call for resistance and martyrdom by Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin was an indication that the rhetoric of violence could quickly spiral out of control.

Averting violence in the wake of the summit failure, he said, would be a “critical test” of the peace process and the administration’s desire to keep it alive.

Despite Clinton’s nod to the Israeli leader, the Jewish community here faces a daunting task in making sure the public perception following the collapse reflects reality, not spin, said Harris.

“Especially because Jerusalem is the center of the debate, there is an enormous information challenge to our community,” he said. “Many Americans will not understand why this is such a core issue. After all, the city is holy to both sides, why not split it down the middle?”

Groups that support the peace process will work in the coming weeks to avert a sense that the summit’s failure signaled the inevitable return of violence.

“After a feeling of disappointment and an initial effort to make sure Israel isn’t blamed, our community will come to understand that this is not the end but one more stage in a process that is characterized by breakthroughs and breakdowns,” said Thomas Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace group.

But any new violence, he said, will further polarize opinion in a divided Jewish community here. And he conceded that the do-or-die rhetoric surrounding the summit may make it harder to avert violence.

“It is harder to go back after a failed summit,” he said. “But I think our community understands that the peace process is much more resilient than anybody expected.”

Peace process opponents will take advantage of the failed talks — and the widespread perception that Arafat’s inflexibility was the primary reason for the failure — to harden official opinion against the Palestinians.

“We will now be urging Congress to revisit the question of whether U.S. taxpayer money should be given to a regime that clearly does not want a genuine peace with Israel,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, referring to current U.S. aid to the Palestinians. “We will urge them to revisit even current financial aid.”

Washington correspondent James D. Besser and Israel correspondent Michele Chabin also contributed to this report.