Jewish Journal


October 21, 1999

Ehud Barak’s First 100 Days

With changes coming slowly, will he continue to be everybody's prime minister?


Ehud Barak has never been celebrated for his modesty. Presenting his government to the Knesset on July 6, the new prime minister declared: "I believe that this day will be chronicled as a milestone and a turning point --a time of reconciliation, unity and peace."

He promised to be the "emissary of all Israel's citizens," and to "introduce a new national order of priorities," with education at the top of the list. In speeches around the country, he projected himself in Hebrew as Rosh Hamemshala shel ku-u-ulam, e-v-e-r-y-body's prime minister.

At the end of his first 100 days, Israel certainly feels different. Barak meant what he said and remains determined to achieve it. The peace process, with the Palestinians if not yet with the Syrians, is moving. The religious parties no longer have the prime minister by the throat. He doesn't make pilgrimages to rabbis. Reason is back with a chance. Barak's coalition, unlike that of his Likud predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, governs without twice-weekly crises.

Above all, Barak is not making policy on the hoof. He plans and advances slowly. He prefers to work quietly in the shadows. Within the nation and the coalition, he strives for consensus, but on his terms. He bores his critics into acquiescence. He chooses which battles to fight and which to avoid. As a young soldier, the former chief of staff learned long ago that you don't shoot unless you're sure your gun is loaded.

Barak gives all parties and all sides just enough to keep them in line. The left will not rock the boat while the peace process is on course. Nor will Yasser Arafat. The National Religious Party (NRP) is content that construction within the West Bank Jewish settlements is still going on. Unlike Yitzhak Rabin, Barak does not insult the settlers. He assures them he "respects" their enterprise. If he has to remove illegal outposts, he seeks to avoid confrontation by compromising on the number and location.

The Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas will eat truckloads of dirt so long as Barak continues to bail out its bankrupt educational network. Yossi Sarid, the left-wing Meretz Education Minister, will pay the starving Shas teachers' wages, so long as the schools open their books to scrutiny: the school books and the account books.

United Torah Judaism (UTJ), Shas' smaller Ashkenazi equivalent, left the coalition in protest at the shipment of massive turbines on the Sabbath. But UTJ was expendable and its five defecting deputies do not threaten Barak's majority, and they have every incentive to return to the fold once the "desecration" fades into history. Decisions have still to be made on drafting yeshiva students into the armed forces, the core issue that brought them in.

The internal contradictions have not gone away. The prime minister will not be able to please all of his partners all of the time, but so far he has managed to keep the balance.

Ehud Barak is starting to look like Israel's most radical prime minister since the founding father, David Ben-Gurion. Radical in its original sense of recreating from the roots, he knows where he wants to go, how he intends to get there, and he will not be easily deflected. As one of his admiring aides put it: "He shatters boiler plates. He doesn't cave in."

Barak's aim is nothing less than redrawing the domestic and regional map. At home, he seeks to smash the facile equations -- Sephardic equals right, Ashkenazi equals left, religious equals right, secular equals left -- that have distorted politics here for more than 20 years.

Abroad, as he said in his July 6 inaugural address: "We know that the victory of Zionism will not be complete until the achievement of genuine peace, full security, and relations of friendship, trust and cooperation with all our neighbors."

The question, which will take many times over 100 days to answer, is whether he has the skill, flexibility and good fortune to succeed. Is politics, a world he entered less than five years ago, as malleable as he believes? Is Israel ready for the Barak revolution? Is the Middle East? Does Barak have the humility, to learn from his mistakes?

On that, too, the jury is still out. Barak is a control freak. He sets deadlines for himself. He is voraciously centralizing his administration. The prime minister's office already manages both security and diplomacy. The government planning and information services are being brought under its roof, emasculating six ministries and the venerable Government Press Office along the way.

Barak is a better talker than a listener. "Never before," wrote Nahum Barnea, Yediot Aharonot's sardonic commentator, "has there been a prime minister who has reported to his ministers with as much fidelity as Barak. He does it by means of intimate, one-way conversations. Barak does not believe in collective consultation. He does not believe in brainstorming." The conversations are one-way. From the prime minister's mouth to the ear of one of his ministers.

So far he has held his ground, but the fault lines are starting to show. Two coalition parties, the NRP and Natan Sharansky's Yisrael B'aliya, are positioning themselves to fight evacuation of the Golan Heights under any peace agreement with Syria.

Shas, a party of dovish leaders and hawkish voters, is constantly calculating its sectional interest. Issues of war and peace are marginal, not to say troublesome, when compared with budgets, jobs and maintaining Israel's Orthodox monopoly. Shas, like UTJ, has a habit of abstaining when the more fateful decisions have to be taken (as it did on the recent Sharm el-Sheikh agreement with the Palestinians).

On the left, supporters of the peace process are disturbed that Barak is allowing NRP Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy to publish tenders for hundreds of homes within West Bank settlements. According to Peace Now, 2,594 have already been issued under Barak's watch, compared with an average of 3,000 a year under Netanyahu. The left is particularly incensed that construction has begun on Har Homa, the controversial new Jewish suburb between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and that a Jewish neighborhood is rising within the Jerusalem Arab village of Ras el-Amud below the Mount of Olives.

At the same time, women voters feel let down that he appointed only two female ministers in a Cabinet of 23; and Israel's Arab minority, who voted overwhelmingly for Barak in May, is uneasy about the crackdown (however justified it may seem to the Jewish majority) on the Islamic Movement after terrorist attacks this summer by three of its disciples.

Barak's own Labor Party is simmering with discontent at his plan to merge it into a broader One Israel. Labor's historical baggage, especially its patronizing record in absorbing the Sephardic immigrants of the 1950s, is irksome to the prime minister, but it has a more positive resonance to those who have given the party their sweat and loyalty for decades. They won't go quietly if he tries to liquidate it.

Much of Barak's social agenda has been put on hold because of the huge budget deficit he inherited from Netanyahu. Yossi Sarid resisted education cuts. Others were less lucky. But expansion will have to wait. So will the unemployed, the immigrants, the minorities to whom Barak was looking for the next milestone on Israel's march to "reconciliation, unity and peace."

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