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Barak aims for the bleachers


NEW YORK, July 11 (JTA) — Babe Ruth was also the strikeout king.

To him, it was all or nothing.

Ever since Ehud Barak took his turn at bat as Middle East peacemaker a little over a year ago, he, too, has been aiming for nothing short of the center field wall.

To the Israeli prime minister, this week’s noise in the Knesset — the exodus of allies from his government, the no-confidence motions that nearly toppled his rule — is merely the chatter of hecklers from the opposing bleachers.

The former general says he takes his orders directly from the Israeli people, and it is them he has in mind when he sits across from his old foe Yasser Arafat at Camp David this week.

In a front-page letter that appeared in the Israeli paper Yediot Achronot this week, Barak wrote that he was traveling to Maryland as “the emissary of the citizens of Israel, in the name of each and every one of them.”

Barak believes he’s on a mission from the people, and that sets him above what he sees as petty politics.

He appears undaunted by the loss of his majority in the Knesset after the desertion of the three coalition partners — Shas, the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliyah — even as it remains unclear whether the developments back home weaken his status at the negotiating table.

Senior Israeli officials sent by Barak to the United States this week to present his negotiating stance to the media laid out his “big picture” strategy.

Aside from the four categories up for negotiation at Camp David this week — boundaries, refugees, Jerusalem and security — they gave more overarching reasons why Barak believes he has the force of history and his electorate behind him:


The fact that Barak is suffering politically at home only strengthens the prime minister’s contention that he is going the extra mile for peace and is willing to risk his political life for it.

Barak firmly believes that his 56 percent majority in the last election represents a mandate from the Israeli people to pursue peace in his own way, and that approval or rejection of a peace deal should come from the Israeli electorate, not its politicians.

He just as firmly believes that if a peace deal is brought before the Israeli people in a referendum, as he has promised, he will win by a large majority, including the settler population.

Barak’s people call it the “triumph of the settler movement” that there will be no wholesale movement of settlements as occurred in the Sinai after Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt.

Without describing how exactly this would be achieved, the Israeli officials said nobody would be displaced — and that even settlements inside a Palestinian state would be given Israeli security protection.


As Barak sees it, 40,000 Palestinian police officers with AK-47s do not represent a security threat to Israel, much less a threat to Israel’s existence.

However, a “nuclear Mideast” is another story.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the victory over Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he believes, gave Israel a window of opportunity to make peace with its neighbors. Israel cannot afford to remain bogged down in the Palestinian conflict when Iran and Iraq both threaten to develop nuclear weapons.

Barak believes that nuclear proliferation and the spread of a fanatical form of Islam across the Mideast should top Israel’s concerns.

Regarding those Palestinian police with guns, Barak’s people say they have used them, for the most part, to root out terrorists.

They did not mention, however, the Palestinian riots of a couple of months ago, when those AK-47s were directed at Israeli troops.


Israelis never wanted the burden of rule over the Palestinians — a situation they found themselves in after the conquest of eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six-Day War. Barak’s view, say his advisers, is that rule over another people destroys the cohesion of society, and a society that’s not cohesive is not secure.

That is a large reason why Barak believes he will win a referendum by a landslide. The Israeli people want to rid themselves of that responsibility.

Settle on external maps, Barak’s handlers say, then Israel can work on its “internal maps” — including healing the rifts within its politically, ethnically and religiously fragmented society.

Barak, his government now merely a weak left-center shadow of what it once was, is gambling everything on his confidence that whatever peace deal emerges from Camp David, whatever sacrifice he will ask the Israeli people to make, they will support him because to maintain the status quo would lead to more uncertainty and bloodshed.

Another delay, another cycle of violence, another few years, and future Israeli and Palestinian leaders would sit down again and have the very same issues on the table, he believes.

The goal of the elusive “end of conflict” is located in the grandstands, with the people.

Barak is pointing his bat toward the center field wall, as the pitcher winds up.

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