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Trio of Former Prime Ministers Differ, but Are United by Mistrust of Arafat

April 24, 2002
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They all hold the same title — former prime minister of the State of Israel.

And they all have been making the rounds of the U.S. airwaves, analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for American audiences, on a mission from current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

But the messages of Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu on Israel’s long-term strategy differ significantly.

While Peres speaks of the need to resume negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Netanyahu say his regime should be toppled and Barak implies that talks with Arafat are useless.

While Netanyahu says Israel should wait until Arab regimes become democratic before seeking peace agreements, the other two don’t want to wait so long.

Without an ambassador in Washington and faced with an onslaught of Arab representatives on television, television programmers increasingly are looking to the former Israeli leaders to speak for the Jewish state.

Some pro-Israel activists are concerned that people may be getting mixed messages about the country’s goals, but analysts say the fact that the three former leaders have come together to express Israel’s concerns is a positive development.

“It serves Israel’s purpose to have a semblance of unity, which is what you have by having three exes and one current prime minister,” said Lenny Ben-David, a former deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

But Ben-David admits there is no single, clear message coming from Jerusalem, only “political schizophrenia.”

Many at this week’s conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee found Barak’s argument the most significant of the three, because of the change it showed in his thinking.

Barak offered extensive concessions to Arafat at the Camp David summit in July 2000, and says the fact that Arafat did not accept his peace proposal — or even make a counteroffer — shows that the Palestinians were not interested in ending the conflict with Israel.

“We unmasked Arafat, using the only possible way to unmask him,” he told AIPAC on Sunday.

Many at the AIPAC conference said Barak’s speech seemed to indicate renewed political aspirations.

Peres comes to the table as the current foreign minister and brings the status of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Arafat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for negotiating the Oslo accords.

Peres says he does not have an answer to why the Palestinians did not accept peace, but says he believes Arafat can fight terror and show leadership in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu, who is likely to challenge Sharon for leadership of Likud Party from the right, has been the most outspoken.

His articulateness and perfect English have made him a frequent guest on television and in the halls of Congress. He uses the attention to advocate for significant changes to Arab societies, likening Palestinian rule to Nazism and outlining the need for the international community to press the Arabs to democratize before a lasting peace can take hold.

Speaking at AIPAC’s conference Monday, Netanyahu said of Arafat: “As long as that man is there representing what he represents, violence and terror will not stop.”

Because the divisions between the three focus largely on how to deal with Arafat and the Palestinians after a cease-fire, they can send a similar message to the world about the need for a cease-fire, said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“So long as there’s a crisis,” the differences among them “are academic, because the overriding concern is how to deal with the homicidal bombers,” Makovsky said.

When they speak in front of American Jewish groups like AIPAC, the former prime ministers address an audience that understands the intricacies of internal Israeli politics and knows the historical differences between their parties and viewpoints.

Even when the three meet with lawmakers and administration officials, there is a similar understanding that many times the men represent no viewpoints but their own.

To television viewers, however, it may be less apparent that the three are not necessarily enunciating the government line, since the former prime ministers — and other Israelis — are invited to debate Arab leaders and defend Israeli military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Still, said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, the main point all three express is frustration with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority.

“The common denominator is stronger than anything that divides” them, Regev said. “Peres, Barak and Netanyahu have all negotiated with Arafat and all have come to conclusion that the hope that Arafat would become a Palestinian Nelson Mandela has been disappointed.”

Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said he has concerns about the message the three are sending to the world, but feels the message at least is consistent.

“When it comes to the question of, ‘Do these presentations create confusion or lack of quality?’ the answer is no,” Siegman said. “They all tend to reinforce Sharon’s argument that Israel has no peace partner in Arafat.”

Makovsky said the distrust of Arafat has been “the glue that keeps disparate parts of Israeli government together,” and has kept the three former leaders largely on message.

“Instead of accentuating the differences, when there is crisis you accentuate the similarities,” he said.

Regev added that Barak, Peres and Netanyahu all command international respect, and utilizing them on television is in Israel’s interest.

“We were going through a difficult time with this military operation, there were difficult pictures,” he said. “It is important to explain to the overseas audiences why Israel is doing what it is.”

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