February 24, 2000
The Honeymoon is Over
Nine months after Ehud Barak took office as "everybody's prime minister," the honeymoon is over -- with his voters, coalition allies and Arab partners in the quest for peace. It is too early to write him off, but the Labor leader can no longer rely on loyalty or goodwill to see him through.
On the domestic front, he shows no sign of delivering to the neglected, mainly Sephardi, citizens in the rundown development towns and city slums to whom he promised jobs and a fair share of the national cake. Unemployment is still running in double figures in these backwaters. Firms are still closing unprofitable textile factories. The old women in overcrowded hospitals, a potent symbol in Barak's election campaign, are still sleeping in the corridors.
To the dismay of Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, who tried to persuade him to reactivate Labor's social agenda, the prime minister and the Treasury conservatives are relying on a "peace dividend" to stimulate the economy. In the best Reagan-Thatcher mode, they put their faith in a trickle-down effect. The rich will get richer, the poor will be a little less poor. But not yet.
Barak is not, as some of his detractors would have us believe, a Bibi Netanyahu clone. For starters, most Israelis still credit him with genuinely seeking peace and a readiness to pay a heavy price for it. But Barak is starting to suffer from the Bibi syndrome.
The professional politicians, whom he treated with ill-concealed contempt when he was forming his administration, are rubbing their hands. His junior coalition parties are flexing their muscles. The heads of three of them -- Shas, the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky's Yisrael B'aliya -- have signed an opposition Likud draft bill, which would block any compromise with the Palestinians over Jerusalem. So has Roni Milo of the Center party. Sharansky and the NRP's Yitzhak Levy are also campaigning against withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
At the beginning of this week, Shas' back-benchers voted against the prime minister on a Likud no-confidence motion. Ostensibly, they were warning Barak not to tamper with Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem. In fact, they were protesting because leftist Meretz Education Minister Yossi Sarid has refused to give his Shas deputy minister, Meshulam Nahari, any work to do.
With an aura of success and the peace process moving forward, Barak could stifle many of these challenges. His trouble is that peace is floundering on every front. The much-decorated ex-chief of staff set targets and timetables for the Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese. He thought that if he tempted them enough, they would let him write the script. It hasn't worked that way. They have their own agendas, and they are rigorously pursuing them.
Syrian President Hafez Assad is sticking to his maximalist demand. Israel, he insists, must withdraw not just from the Golan plateau, but to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. And he is making it more difficult for Barak to sell a deal to the Israeli public -- by forbidding his diplomats to shake Israeli hands, by accusing Israel of behaving like Nazis, by hinting that peace would be no more than a staging post toward the ultimate Arab goal of destroying the Zionist state.
For their part, the Palestinians are declining to accept whatever slices of the West Bank Barak deigns to give them under the delayed Oslo accords. They want areas closer to Jerusalem. They want to be consulted. They want to bargain. Otherwise, they won't play ball -- and the security services are already warning of renewed Palestinian violence.
This week, Yasser Arafat publicly accused Barak of being no better than Netanyahu. The Palestinian leader is reported to have told Miguel Moratinos, the European Union's roving Middle East troubleshooter: "Barak tried and failed to assassinate me three times when he was serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Now he is trying to kill me by means of my own people. He is humiliating me and trying to coerce me into accepting his surrender terms."
In Lebanon, bombing civilian power stations has boomeranged. The Hezbollah guerrillas are still shooting Israeli soldiers (though they have been deterred, for now, from firing Katyusha rockets at civilian communities in Northern Israel). But Beirut has exploited the air strikes to rally the Arab world -- and much of the West -- against Israel. The escalation has provoked a crisis between Barak and President Hosni Mubarak, who flew to Lebanon for the first visit there by an Egyptian leader in half a century.
Barak is keeping his nerve. He is setting new deadlines, working to revive negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians. He still promises to "bring the boys home" from Lebanon by July. But he is looking more and more like the boy on the burning deck.
Israeli commentators are uniformly gloomy. The nearest to an optimist this week was Hemi Shalev, who suggested in Ma'ariv that "Arab public opinion discerns in its gut that the peace process is coming of age, and that the time for decisions is approaching." On this reading, Shalev dubbed it, "The storm before the calm."
The alternative, he might have added, would not be a return to the old bromide of no-peace, no-war.
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