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Barak in trouble even if cease-fire holds


JERUSALEM, Oct. 18 (JTA) – Will the cease-fire hold? That’s the most immediate question in the aftermath of this week’s agreement announced by President Clinton in Egypt.

But the post-summit answer will not only affect lives, it will also affect the political future of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the prospects for reviving the Middle East peace process.

Even the most sanguine observers did not realistically expect a total cease-fire on the ground, despite the verbal agreement reached at Sharm el-Sheik.

By midweek, this view was confirmed through sporadic shootings and other violent clashes around the West Bank and Gaza, although there was a decrease in the number of incidents.

The real test is expected to come early next week, after the Arab League heads of state meet in Cairo over the weekend at their first high-level conference in 10 years.

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president who insisted that Arab leaders come together for this rare gathering, does not want to appear there as a timid leader of a timid nation. From his perspective, the resentment and bitterness must continue to be tangibly present on Palestinian streets as the Arab leaders deliberate on the Palestinian future.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority issued a formal statement on Wednesday, in accordance with the Sharm el-Sheik agreement, declaring it intends to abide by the cease-fire. Senior Israeli and Palestinian officers and security officials held a series of meetings Wednesday to implement the agreement on the ground at the various points of friction.

If the cease-fire holds, Clinton wants the two sides to send negotiators to Washington in two weeks as part of a first step toward resuming peace negotiations.

Ironically, however, the more successful the cease-fire, the more dangerous the domestic political position of Barak.

On Tuesday night, several hours after the summit ended, the opposition Likud Party announced the end of efforts to set up a national unity government.

Likud leader Ariel Sharon welcomed the cease-fire itself. But he poured withering criticism on the other terms of the agreement, accusing Barak of caving in to international pressures.

The agreement also called for a U.S.-led inquiry into the causes of the violence and an effort to find a way back to peace negotiations.

Sharon, who has been blamed by the international community for sparking the weeks of violence with his Sept. 28 visit to the Temple Mount, said there was no point discussing unity, since Barak had effectively agreed to resume the peace negotiations “as though nothing has happened.”

The Likud opposes the concessions Barak offered at the Camp David summit in July. The party demanded that any unity government be predicated on a new peace policy agreed to by Likud and Labor.

Had the summit failed and the violence continued or worsened, the prospects of a unity government would have been much brighter.

Sharon might have been able to persuade his party colleagues to join Barak’s government solely on the basis of the need to defend the country, without reference to a peace policy.

But now with new hopes – albeit modest ones – of reviving the peace process, Likud members are asking, “Why should we step in to rescue Barak?”

In their view, if the emergency is over, the political dispute becomes legitimate again. And Barak, who has lost his majority in the Knesset over his peace policies, has a dim political future.

With the Knesset due to reconvene on Oct. 30, Barak’s prospects of survival do indeed seem slim.

A bill calling for the dissolution of the Knesset and for early elections is on the agenda. By every indication, it seems poised to pass.

Barak can no longer rely on the votes of the Arab parties in the Knesset following the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs during this month’s disturbances.

If there are new elections, the current polls say former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who it is presumed would roundly defeat Sharon for the Likud leadership, would thrash Barak.

A Gallup poll appearing in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv last Friday gave Netanyahu a 16-point lead over Barak, while Sharon and Barak were neck and neck.

Some pundits believe that this ominous arithmetic will eventually drive Barak and Sharon into each other’s arms, despite the strong reservations being voiced by rank-and-file members of both parties over the unity government option.

Other Barak-watchers assert that the premier has been toying with the opposition leader, using the specter of a unity government, with Sharon in it, to prod the international community into action to curb the violence with the hope of heading back to the peace process.

Now that such action has been taken, and has resulted in the cease-fire, Barak will back away from the unity option, these analysts say, since he never seriously intended to implement it anyway.

Barak himself said midweek he wanted as large an emergency government as possible. He challenged his erstwhile partners, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party and the left-wing Meretz Party to set aside their differences and reconstitute their partnership in government with his own One Israel bloc

Bringing Shas back would mean Barak abandoning his secular legislative program, which among other things envisions the introduction of civil marriage and El Al flights on Shabbat.

Barak, who has widely touted the importance of this new program, would once again be sending the message that his government’s initial priority – concluding a peace deal – ahead of all else.

Only he can decide if his political credibility can withstand the impact of such a sharp U-turn.

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