Jewish Journal

Barak’s Tough Choices

by Larry Derfner

Posted on May. 20, 1999 at 8:00 pm

The tens of thousands of happy secularists who danced Election Night away in Rabin Square may have thought they'd "taken back the country" from the right-wing and religious, but according to all the signs, incoming Prime Minister Ehud Barak has a surprise in store for them.

Not only does he intend to carry out his promise -- to form as broad-based a coalition as possible, to hew to the center instead of the left -- but he evidently intends to court his hardcore supporters' new worst enemy: Shas.

Knesset member Yossi Beilin used to be one of the strongest voices in One Israel against bringing Shas into the government. But after Shas leader Arye Deri announced his resignation as party leader -- fulfilling Barak's condition for holding coalition talks with Shas -- Beilin said on a TV post-election panel: "According to my moral standards -- which may not be high enough -- I'm satisfied."

Dr. Alon Liel, a policy adviser to Barak, said, "There is no reason why we can't sit down and talk with Shas."

During the campaign, Barak made it clear he didn't want to let Shas have the Interior Ministry again, that he might want to give it to his new ally, Yisrael B'Aliya. But that was before Election Day, before Shas won 17 Knesset seats and became, by current standards, a giant-sized party. Now the Interior Ministry might be small potatoes compared to what Shas has in mind.

Meretz, a supporter and seemingly a natural partner of Barak's, has said it won't sit in the government with Shas. Tommy Lapid said his Shinui won't sit with Shas or United Torah Judaism. Yet Barak has his eye on UJT as well, said Liel. "We want to completely redefine the relations between religious and secular Jews in this country, and it is very important that United Torah Judaism be a part of it," he said.

People who've had Barak's ear say he doesn't want a repeat of the Rabin-Peres government, one that thrills half the people and appalls the other half, a government that makes historic decisions with a one-vote majority, or that depends on outside support from Arab or anti-Zionist parties. In his first steps as prime minister, Barak intends to pursue this new, all-inclusive, wall-to-wall strategy with a commando's determination.

While Barak is ready to court Shas and UJT, he's not so sure about Shinui, said Liel. "[Its] refusal to sit in a government with haredim is unacceptable," said Liel. "Even if [its] seats could give us a Knesset majority, [the party] can't go on tearing at the fabric of Israeli society [if it wants to be in a Barak government]."

Barak will offer a place in the coalition to Likud, Liel continued, especially now that Netanyahu is out of the picture. But he is wary of breaking the unbroken tradition of keeping Arab parties out of the government, said Liel.

"Barak is not committed to appointing an Arab minister," he said. "But at the same time, it wouldn't be right to bring Israel's Jews together while leaving Israel's Arabs out." If Barak countenances appointing an Israeli Arab minister, he would likely look to an Arab in one of the Zionist parties, said Liel.

In another TV post-election panel, Center Party MK Dan Meridor counseled Barak to keep in mind that the purpose of a government is not to have as many member s as possible, but to get things done. "He has to bring in people on the basis of their political outlook, not because they simply agree to join," Meridor said. The coalition talks will tell whether Barak is interested in such counsel.

Most of Barak's domestic agenda is uncontroversial, motherhood-and-apple pie stuff: More and better education, jobs, health care -- everything an economic recovery, if it comes, can provide.

His foreign policy agenda is somewhat less pareve. As soon as possible, Barak intends to unfreeze the talks with the Palestinians, which have been on ice since December, and with the Syrians, which have been chilling out for the entire Netanyahu Era.

The main order of business with the Palestinians, Liel said, is rebuilding mutual trust, and allowing them to warm up to Barak.

"On Election Night, nobody was dancing in the streets of Ramallah or Jenin," said Liel. "Despite what the Netanyahu campaign tried to make people think, Barak isn't the Palestinians' favorite political personality. They see him as a hawk."

The Palestinians aren't altogether wrong. While Barak's platform calls for holding onto "large settlement blocs" near the Green Line such as Ariel, Alfei Menashe and Gush Etzion, implying that some of the smaller, isolated settlements in the interior of the West Bank may have to fold someday, he meant it when he said that Ofra and Beit El would always remain under Israeli rule.

"Barak's settlement policy is probably going to get more flak from the left than from the right," said Liel.

Alon Pinkas, a Barak foreign policy advisor, asserted that Barak is committed to going through with the rest of the 13 percent withdrawal called for in the Wye agreement "provided that our security requests are met." Asked if Barak went along with Netanyahu's contention that the Palestinians hadn't lived up to their signed commitments to fight terror, Pinkas said Barak would have to wait until he conferred with Shin Bet officials before deciding.

Liel, however, suggested that Barak might be looking beyond the Wye agreement -- or around it when he resumes talks with the Palestinians. While the incoming prime minister is not bound by the Clinton administration's pledge to try to settle the final status arrangement by May 2000, Barak is interested in reaching an agreement with the Palestinians to push the Oslo accord toward the final status settlement -- in a way that might pre-empt Wye, said Liel.

"We didn't sign the Wye agreement, although we supported it. It wasn't the agreement of our dreams," he said.

Asked if Barak would carry out the remaining withdrawals called for in Wye, as well as allowing a safe passage for Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza, Liel replied, "If the Palestinians insist on the implementation of Wye as a means of rebuilding their trust, then I assume Barak would find that acceptable. I'm just saying that once negotiations resume, new ideas could arise and win agreement by both sides that would supersede the Wye accord." There is another deadline in 2000 that Barak has more or less set for himself: June 2000, one year after he takes office, the month by which Barak wants to get Israeli troops out of south Lebanon. He is not talking about a unilateral withdrawal; he needs Syria's cooperation so the withdrawal goes peacefully, and to this end, Barak intends to get the Syrians talking again. As IDF chief of staff, he played a crucial role in the Rabin government's talks with Syria, negotiating security arrangements with his counterpart, Hikmat Shihabi. Since then, however, Shihabi has been moved out of his post by Syrian President Hafez Assad, so Barak has lost his best contact.

Assad's condition for restarting talks, rejected by Netanyahu these past three years, was that the negotiations resume at the point where they left off under the Rabin-Peres administration. That point, according to Assad's recollection, was where Rabin and Peres had agreed to give Syria back the entire Golan Heights.

"We don't agree with Syria's interpretation," said Liel. Barak has stated publicly, repeatedly, that he is ready for territorial compromise on the Golan, even "painful" concessions. His platform reiterates the formula that on the Golan, "The extent of the withdrawal will match the extent of peace."

This doesn't necessarily mean, however, that Barak would give up all of the Golan in return for full, Camp David-style peace with Syria, noted Liel. Israel would have to have its security and water needs on the Golan taken care of. "The Golan Heights is just one element in an overall framework for peace with Syria," he said.

What Barak has in mind is kicking off the negotiations by focusing not on what Israel can do for Syria, but what Syria can do for Israel. First, Barak wants to work out Syrian agreement for an Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon by June 2000, just as he promised, and afterward, the focus would shift to a full peace accord with Syria, Liel explained.

Yet this would require Assad to give up his leverage over Israel -- the fighting in Lebanon -- without any assurance that his unchanging demand of full return of the Golan would be met. Assad has never had a reputation for gullibility, nor for flexibility. Why should he agree?

"We think that once Syria sees that there's a new atmosphere in Israel, a new government, one that has a different relationship with the Palestinians, with the Arab world, with the U.S., we think Syria's position might soften," Liel suggested.

The incoming Barak government just abounds with high hopes. A kinder, gentler Assad; settlements, united Jerusalem and peace with the Palestinians; a government in which 70, 80 or 90 warring Israeli tribesmen and tribeswomen not only sit together, but also propel themselves in the same direction, preferably forward. Compared to all this, Shimon Peres' New Middle East sounded like a modest proposal.

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