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Jewish Journal

But Can Barak Convince the Israelis?

by Larry Derfner

December 16, 1999 | 7:00 pm

At first blush it seemed like a done deal. If Syria and Israel were returning to the negotiating table, and President Bill Clinton was leading them, then it was surely just a matter of time until the two sides reached agreement and declared peace. American, Syrian and Israeli officials sounded confident to a fault, saying a deal might be just a short distance away.

But they forgot about the folks back in Israel. So far neither the Knesset nor the public is giving Prime Minister Ehud Barak the "landslide" support which he predicted a peace treaty would receive. Already the Israeli "street" is heating up with demonstrations of up to 10,000 people protesting the treaty that is shaping up. Not only are the opposition parties vowing to stop the deal, but parties within Barak's own governing coalition are joining them.

"I don't think Barak has this one in his pocket; in fact I think the opposite is the case," said Aharon Domb, the former head of the Judea, Samaria and Gaza settlers council who is now involved in planning the "No" campaign for the referendum.

The sticking point in the peace with Syria is, of course, the Golan Heights -- the hill-and-mountain range in Israel's northeast corner which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, and where some 17,000 Israeli settlers now live.

Until the 1993 Oslo Accord revolutionized Israeli thinking about peace, war, land and enemies, the Golan Heights was sacrosanct. The popular consensus on keeping all of it, forever, under Israeli sovereignty was almost as solid as the consensus on Jerusalem. The Golan settlers, unlike those in the West Bank and Gaza, were largely politically moderate, secular Israelis, mainly from the kibbutz and Labor movements; the general Israeli public identified strongly with their cause.

But as it became clear that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad would not agree to peace without getting back the entire Golan, and as it further became clear that Israel could not end its 17-year war in Lebanon until it made peace with Lebanon's de facto ruler -- which is Syria -- the national consensus on the Golan began breaking up.

Following the announcement of the resumption of peace talks, the authoritative Dahaf Poll found that 57 percent of Israelis were willing to part with "nearly all of the Golan" in return for peace with Syria and Lebanon, with only 38 percent opposed.

But neither the Americans nor the Israelis are trying to hide the near certainty that peace with Syria will require withdrawal from not nearly all, but rather, all of the Golan. This would mean that every one of the 17,000 settlers would have to leave their homes. Dahaf found that only 45 percent of Israelis were willing to go all the way and relinquish the Golan in its entirety, while 54 percent were unwilling.

These are early previews of the referendum; public sentiment could, and likely will, change by the time it is held -- if Israel and Syria first reach agreement at the negotiating table. The Likud-led opposition wants to force the pro-peace camp to win a 60 percent majority in the referendum to ratify any peace treaty. A 60 percent threshold would neutralize the Israeli Arab vote, which would likely go nearly unanimously for peace.

Likud and other right-wing politicians don't deny their conviction that withdrawal from the Golan must first win a "Jewish majority"; the 60 percent threshold is an elegant way of banning Israeli Arabs from voting. Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said that in such circumstances, the term "Jewish majority" would effectively mean "racist majority."

Besides winning public ratification in a referendum, a peace agreement with Syria will require an absolute, 61-vote majority in the Knesset, and so far Barak doesn't have it. He left for the opening of talks in Washington with a vote of confidence that went 47 Knesset Members in his favor, 31 against and 24 abstaining.

Barak's ruling coalition includes right-wing parties like the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky's Russian immigrant party Yisrael B'Aliya. Both have announced they will oppose giving back the Golan.

The prime minister's hopes of winning Knesset approval for a peace treaty may well rest on the ultra-Orthodox party Shas, whose ranks account for fully one-quarter of his coalition. If Shas' 17 MKs vote for a treaty, it will almost surely pass; if Shas votes against, it will almost surely fail. A poll of the Shas legislators found three in favor of a Golan-for-peace pact, with 14 against. In the Knesset vote, the entire Shas faction abstained.

With its endless demands for state money to fund its religious school and social services network, which is swamped in debt and corruption, Shas appears capable now of getting anything it wants from Barak. Shas' absolute ruler is Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Barak, like Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin before him, is an old hand at courting Yosef's favor. Barak recently prevailed on his friend, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to host Yosef at Downing Street during the rabbi's recent visit.

Yet the Golan settler leadership is also adept at playing up to Yosef. The Shas spiritual leader is likely to become the most widely flattered man in Israel until the peace with Syria either succeeds or fails.

If Barak is to win the public's support for withdrawal from the Golan, he is going to have to find a symbol to neutralize the emotional power of the Golan settlers. They are burning with righteous indignation, and opposition politicians -- chiefly Barak himself -- are offering the settlers their sympathy, their respect, and, eventually, the state's money, as compensation for being forced to quit their homes.

The government's referendum campaign will focus on the gains to be made from peace with Syria. The most immediate, tangible gain foreseen is the end to the bloody war in Lebanon. The image of parents of slain soldiers, for instance, expressing their support for a peace agreement, saying they don't want any more Israeli soldiers to die like their sons, could be as or even more powerful than the image of Golan children, for instance, tearfully asking their parents why they must leave their homes.

Still another headache for Barak is where to find the money to pay to compensate the 17,000 settlers for their lost homes, businesses and/or jobs, and psychological effects of forced dislocation. While the Clinton administration has said it would ask Congress to help pay the cost of peace, estimates of this cost run from $3 billion to $13 billion and even higher. Congress is not nearly that generous.

One of the key arguments in favor of peace with Syria is that it will bring great benefits to Israel's economy, but the cost of compensating the settlers -- part of which will almost unavoidably have to come out of Israelis' pockets -- should undermine that argument.

The Clinton administration is cautioning that the Syrian-Israeli negotiations will be grueling. Yet as grueling as they might be, they could prove to be a stroll in the park compared to the Israeli-Israeli wrestling match that is only now beginning.

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