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Barak the peacemaker?

Israel's new prime minister often invokes his Labor predecessor Yitzhak Rabin. But can he seize Rabin's mantle and conclude a final settlement with the Palestinians, as well as agreements with Syria and Lebanon?

After the initial euphoria of Ehud Barak's seismic win in Israel's prime ministerial elections last month, things have quietened down in the Middle East. For the last month, the One Israel leader has been absorbed in the complex task of constructing a workable coalition government from the myriad of parties that make up the country's new parliament. As a result, virtually no time has been spent dealing with diplomatic and international issues. But there is little doubt that as soon as the administration is settled in, Barak will begin to focus on his core objective of concluding peace deals with Israel's neighbours.

The defeat of Binyamin Netanyahu and his ruling Likud Party has certainly been welcomed in the Arab capitals. Whilst some Palestinian activists have been muttering that there is little difference between Israel's incoming and outgoing leaders, Yasser Arafat and other Arab leaders know that this is certainly not the case. Ehud Barak will certainly be no pushover. He will not simply accede to all the demands that others make regarding territorial withdrawal and suchlike. But he has a fundamental ideological commitment to see through the task that Yitzhak Rabin began and bring peace to the region.

There should be no doubt that there will be problems on the way to achieving a final settlement. Extremists on both sides disrupted the process before - with incidents such as Hamas' terrorist attacks and Yigal Amir's assassination of Rabin - and could well try to do so again. But with Netanyahu gone, there are now real prospects that comprehensive deals can be reached.

The question being asked in many of Israel's neighbouring countries is, what kind of agreements does Ehud Barak envisage?

THE PALESTINIANS

In the run up to Israel's general election, Ehud Barak made his position with regard to the Palestinians clear. "I will renew the peace process within the Oslo framework," he declared. However, the One Israel leader is adamant that with regard to borders, Israel will "under no circumstances return to those of 1967".

Any deal must be negotiated. This means that Barak will not agree to the unilateral establishment of a Palestinian state. But that does not mean that the new administration is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state.

"Based on the belief that the Jewish state cannot rule over another people, we propose a physical separation between the two peoples," Barak said, adding that "from Israel's point of view, a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation is preferable. A Palestinian state is not an Israeli goal.

"But if a Palestinian state emerges from the permanent accord, we will ensure security and political constraints that reflect Israel's vital interests."

To make such a declaration to the Israeli electorate in the lead up to a national poll shows how Barak sees the peace process progressing. Essentially, his line is that a Palestinian state is not his ideal choice but it is an inevitability and he will not be the one to stop it.

Of course, a Palestinian state will come at a price, which will be more than just military constraints. Barak remains adamant that Jerusalem will remain unified and be the capital of Israel. This concept is obviously anathema to the Palestinians. But if the choice is an independent state without Jerusalem or no state at all, Yasser Arafat will be hard pressed to concede.

Over the last few years, informal dialogue has attempted to address this most complex of issues. One idea that has been floated on several occasions is that the neighbouring town of Ramallah could serve as a Palestinian capital. Another is that Abu Dis, which lies just outside the eastern city limits, could fill the role.

Whilst such an idea is obviously not ideal from the Palestinian perspective, it is a solution that the defeated Likud Party could also live with. From Barak's perspective, this a key issue. He understands that Yitzhak Rabin failed to unite the majority of Israel's electorate behind the Oslo accord and this was part of the reason for the deep rifts that exist in the country. Barak wants to heal those divisions and reunite Israelis and that can only be done if there is broad-based support for a final deal. With the new prime minister promising a referendum on any final deal with the Palestinians, popular support is essential.

Even Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem and a man who is widely tipped to win the forthcoming Likud leadership contest, is not against such a solution. In a recent interview, he was asked how he viewed the idea of Abu Dis as a Palestinian capital. "I am responsible for Jerusalem, do I care about Abu Dis?" Olmert replied, tacitly accepting the viability of this option.

The virtual collapse of the far right as an electoral force also boosts Barak. The National Religious Party, widely seen as a pivotal supporter of the West Bank settler movement lost more than 50 per cent of its seats, even after a perceived moderation of its position. Meanwhile, the far right Tsomet Party, which has been a significant force, lost all its seats. Even Dr Beni Begin's new National Unity group, which was formed by Likud malcontents together with the extremist Moledet Party and defectors from the National Religious Party, secured a derisory three seats.

Before such grand issues can be confronted, Barak needs to start by rebuilding bridges between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This is likely to lead to a halt on further settlement construction and moves to resume the implementation of the Wye Accords, which Netanyahu signed and then ignored. As confidence is built, the two sides can think about final status negotiations and the form a permanent deal will take.

THE SYRIANS

Before the election, Barak was also clear about his view of a Jerusalem-Damascus deal. "We will renew negotiations with Syria and bring about peace without harming Israel's security. The extent of our withdrawal from the Golan Heights will be commensurate with the extent of peace, normalisation and the quality of early warning and security arrangements," he declared.

"Barak's most dramatic move," predicts political commentator Leslie Susser, "will be the renewal of peace talks with Syria, deadlocked in the Netanyahu years. The first item on the agenda will be clarifying the point at which the talks broke down. Damascus claims that there was an Israeli commitment to withdraw to the 4 June 1967 border, bringing Syria to the shore of Lake Kinneret. Israel says the commitment was dependent on Syrian security guarantees and referred to the international border several kilometres further back. Barak is dead set against withdrawing to the Kinneret shore."

In regard to concessions over the Golan, Barak has been aided by the election performance of the Third Way Party. The grouping was set up by a retired general before the 1996 general election with the sole goal of working to stop a withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Golan Heights. At that time, such was the opposition amongst many centrists to this idea that the party scooped four seats in parliament, with its support mostly coming from Labour voters.

There can be no clearer signal to Barak that a deal involving concessions to Damascus is viable than the fact that the Third Way Party lost all of its seats in the general election in May.

Indeed, the new prime minister has already set the ball rolling, by sending Itamar Rabinovich to Washington. The main purpose was to update the Americans on the new administration's agenda with regard to, the peace process. But it is also believed that Rabinovich has helped push for the formulation of what diplomats call a "non-paper" - an unsigned agreement that deals with the issue of where the previous talks between Rabin and Assad actually broke down.

THE LEBANESE

"Within a year of being elected, I pledge to bring the boys home from Lebanon. We will work towards a gradual withdrawal, based on a political-military Israeli-Lebanese agreement guaranteed by Syria, under which Lebanese and international forces will enter areas vacated by the army," declared Rabin during the election campaign.

Sorting out the mess that is Israel's so-called "security zone" in southern Lebanon has become a key priority for the new prime minister (see page 10). Israel's proxy force, the SLA, supported by Israeli army troops, has had its confidence sapped by the actions of Hizbullah. Numerous Israeli troops have been killed and many Israelis have started to call for a unilateral withdrawal from the country.

Barak knows the dangers implicit in a unilateral withdrawal - primarily that it will create a vacuum that will soon be filled by Hizbullah. Israel would then face the unappealing prospect of having Hizbullah forces on the country's border and much of the north of the Jewish state would be under constant threat from rocket attacks.

The problem with a negotiated settlement is that the Lebanese authorities are virtually impotent. The only way a deal can be struck is with Syrian acquiesence, and Damascus is not going to agree to anything so long as the issue of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan remains unresolved.

This makes Barak's commitment to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon within 12 months a tall order. It is also why he may turn to Syria first and delay dealing with the substantive issues with the Palestinian Authority until a later date.

A number of Israeli commentators have been pondering this issue in recent weeks. Some believe that Barak will attempt to progress on both tracks simultaneously, others put the Syrians or the Palestinians at the top of the priority list. In truth, it will probably be the case that Barak will push ahead with whichever of the tracks is progressing the most smoothly, in search of the quickest deal. So, if Syria's president Assad refuses to play ball, Israel will seek to forge a deal with the Palestinians. Conversely, if Yasser Arafat digs his heels in, the Israeli prime minister will probably turn to Syria instead.

One party to the equation that is anxious for a deal sooner rather than later is the United States. US President Bill Clinton has played a key role in the peace process during his time in the White House. That tenure is now coming to an end. And the one thing that is true of all US presidents - be they Democrats or Republicans - is their desire to secure their place in the history books. Clinton is already assured of that for other reasons, but the chance to be remembered as the president who brought peace to the Middle East is a far more attractive legacy and one that Clinton will be working for in the coming months.

RELATED ARTICLE: By Rula Sharkawi in Jerusalem

Once the party crackers have fizzled out and the commotion settled, Palestinians are still left wondering how Israel's new Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak stands on the peace process.

Widely tauted as a man of peace, Barak has been pressing the gas on forming a coalition government, yet he has said little about Labor's commitments to pushing the peace process forward, leaving many unfamiliar and sceptical of his policies.

On 18 May, 1999, the day after elections, in a telephone conversation with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yaser Arafat, Barak made a promise to revive the peace process, according to Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rudeyna, but said little else about the subject.

Yet barak began his first morning as Prime Minister-elect at the Western Wall stating that Jerusalem was "the eternal and united capital of Jerusalem," a speech that earned a chilly reception from Palestinians condemning him of being "more of the same."

That same day, a three-structure 132 apartment settlement building project in the East Jerusalem Arab neighbourhood of Ras al Amud, got underway after having secured permission from the Jerusalem municipality.

Palestinian reaction varied. While arafat announced that he respected the results of the elections in Israel and praised Ehud Barak, some of his ministers weren't as enthusiastic.

"The Palestinians and the Arabs must not rush to celebrate Barak's victory," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the PA's minister of information and culture. "First of all, we must observe the policies he actually pursues," he told French reporters.

On the streets, many remained unconvinced that a new Labor government would offer the Palestinians any more than Likud has in the past.

"There won't be much change in Israeli politics," said Omar, a student at Birzeit University.

"Labor is much worse than Likud, because at least we know what is on the agenda of a Likud party leader. It is clear. However, Labor claims that the Palestinians have the right to self-determination, but don't do much to implement those rights. Let's not forget that it was a Labor government behind the 1948 and 1967 wars and the Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon."

"Likud and Labor are all the same," says Yacoub from the West Bank town of Ramallah. "The politicians like to take turns playing good guy, bad guy. On the outside they appear different, one wants to promote peace while the other delays it, but in reality nobody wants to give back what they see as their 'One Israel.' MK Azmi Bishara had it right in the 1996 elections when he urged Arab voters to hand in blank ballots after saying that Labor and Likud were two sides of the same coin."
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Title Annotation:new Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak; includes related article on Palestinian's reactions to Barak's election
Author:Album, Andrew
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Words:2256
Previous Article:A new wave of Gulf women.
Next Article:Long-range plans for south Lebanon.
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