Supporters of embattled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak are hoping he can pull off the Israeli equivalent of a November surprise — a peace agreement with the Palestinians that would turn his bid for re-election into a referendum for peace.
On Wednesday, just a day after Barak stunned his supporters and foes alike by agreeing to opposition demands for early elections just 17 months into his four-year term, Israel Radio reported that he had already reached out to senior Palestinian officials. They were quoted as saying that Barak was now willing to offer compromises he had ruled out during peace talks at Camp David in July with Palestinian President Yasir Arafat.
“If he does not succeed, he will not be re-elected,” said Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace in Washington. “In the past, he presented ideas without reference to Palestinian concerns and preferences. Now he is going to shape his ideas to meet both Palestinian and Israeli preferences. He will be much tougher on issues of security and the [Palestinian] right of return, and more sensitive to Palestinian concerns on issues of settlements.”
By succumbing to the inevitability of new elections — after seeking until the last moment to form a national unity government — Barak has also “thrown down the gauntlet to Arafat,” Cohen observed. “I bet you are going to have now a very serious attempt by the two sides [to reach an accord]. They need an agreement to end the intifada and to create a new structure for a [peace] agreement.”
There have been growing signs that Arafat wants to seek a peace accord with Barak. He reportedly called Arab Israeli members of parliament to ask them to support Barak in the vote on early elections — they refused — and there have recently been Israeli-Palestinian meetings on security coordination. The level of Palestinian violence has also markedly declined. For his part, Barak has eased some trade and travel restrictions on Palestinians.
But during Tuesday’s stormy Knesset session, members of the opposition Likud Party shouted at Barak not to continue the peace process, which he suspended when Palestinian violence erupted at the end of September, claiming more than 290 lives.
“We shouted at him that he doesn’t have a mandate to proceed whatsoever with the so-called peace process,” said Naomi Blumenthal, a member of parliament and head of the World Likud movement. “We shouted that it is not democratic and is it not moral and that he just can’t do it. I hope he understood.”
Knesset member Colette Avital of Barak’s Labor Party said that by agreeing to the early elections bills, Barak “actually pulled the rug from under their feet.” She said the moment political parties began defecting and supporting the bills, “it was evident Barak was not going to wait to be defeated. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has gone up tremendously in public opinion polls because he has guts. I’m full of admiration for him.”
Reaction to this week’s developments has been mixed. Rashid Khalidi, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago and a former adviser to the Palestinian delegation at the Madrid peace talks in 1991, said he believes the peace process is dead for the time being.
“Any serious [peace] deal would have to go before the Knesset, and in a situation where the government has already thrown in the towel, how can the prime minister go for a vote on a deal he made?” he asked. “There is no possibility now of any serious attempt to reach an agreement.”
Besides, Khalidi pointed out, Palestinians are “very bitterly disillusioned with Barak. His actions belied whatever sweet words he might have used. There have been more settlements built and more [Palestinian] land confiscation [under his government]. They lost faith when he refused to carry out the third phase of redeployment. While they would deal with him if he had a renewed mandate, there is no love for him based on what he did in the last year-and-a-half.”
But an adviser to Arafat, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, was quoted in the Jerusalem Post as saying new elections would give Barak “the freedom to work out an agreement with the Palestinians” without having to worry about his political support back home.
Jonathan Paris, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that by turning down an offer to form a unity government that would have given veto power over peace efforts to opposition Likud leader Ariel Sharon, Barak had actually strengthened his hand in the peace process.
“I give him a 40 to 50 percent chance that he will succeed in moving back to the peace table, not necessarily in a summit but in a tacit or explicit agreement that would provide the Palestinians with statehood and borders but leave the sensitive issues of refugees and Jerusalem for another time,” said Paris. “If he succeeds at that, he has a 50-50 chance of re-election.”
Trying to conduct an election campaign during a time of Palestinian unrest will not be easy, noted Judith Kipper, co-director of Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. And she said an election during such conflict “influences people in a way they would not be if things were quiet.”
“I think it will be a tough campaign and clearly the future of the peace process depends on who gets elected,” she said. “I think the Palestinians will negotiate with whomever wins and that because Barak has been more forthcoming, it is more likely they will get something more from him than from the others.”
But Blumenthal said she had been hearing that the Palestinians would actually prefer to see former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu re-elected because although he took a harder line, “they knew where he stood. They say that Barak doesn’t fulfill anything he says.”
During the Knesset debate Tuesday that led up to the overwhelming vote for early elections — the measure now goes to committee and must be approved two more times by the Knesset — both Barak and Sharon exchanged angry words. But the next day, there was speculation that Sharon might join Barak in a national emergency government until new elections, which are expected in May. Both men also expressed a willingness to again try to forge a unity government, a move that would head off new elections and strengthen the hand of Sharon , who is expected to lose to Netanyahu should there be a primary fight for party leadership.
Public opinion polls last week put Sharon ahead of Barak by 10 points and Netanyahu ahead by 20. Netanyahu, who is attending a bar mitzvah in New York this weekend, is expected to return to Israel next week. He dropped out of public life after being handily defeated by Barak in his re-election bid in May 1999.
Blumenthal, head of World Likud and a close ally of Netanyahu, said she spoke by phone with Netanyahu Wednesday and that she believes he will wait awhile before throwing his hat back into the political arena. When he does, she said, Sharon might back away from challenging him.
Barak may himself face a primary challenge from Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, who was said by Israel Radio to be “gearing up for the possibility that he will run.”
Barak’s latest gambit comes on top of new uncertainties over U.S. peacemaking efforts caused by the chaotic presidential transition here.
Washington sources say the uncertainty of the presidential election may hamper America’s role in helping the Israelis and Palestinians reach a peace agreement, despite assurances from Madeleine Albright to Jewish leaders Tuesday that the U.S. is ready to help.
“To the extent that the Arabs see Bill Clinton as a lame duck, it’s harder to project American influence in the region,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Makovsky, referring to the political mud fight in Florida, said that “it may be that the dramas in the Mideast and the Southeast are linked. Perhaps Arafat is hearing from fellow Arabs that he should wait until the dust settles in the U.S. presidential race, that if he holds out and Bush is the winner, maybe there will be the kind of pressure on Israel that was applied during his father’s years.”
But Barak’s decision to hold new elections could pull the Palestinian leader in the other direction.
“While it might seem that this would put everything on hold until the Israeli political situation sorts itself out, one cannot rule out that Barak will now intensify the search for a diplomatic deal that might be able to, in his view, best protect Israel and also increase his sagging electoral fortunes,” Makovsky said.
“What we might see now is a real test of Arafat’s intentions,” said a longtime pro-Israel analyst here. “If he has any real desire to come back into serious negotiations, now is the time to do it, while Barak is still in power. If he continues to hold back, and thereby helps elect a Likud government, it’s a pretty clear signal we’re heading toward more conflict, not more peace talks.”
Washington correspondent James D. Besser contributed to this report.