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After the Summit

Peace is possible following Camp David, but coalition troubles could lead to new elections.

by Eric Silver

July 27, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Camp David is dead, long live Camp David. That was the slogan as the despondent, disappointed Israelis left the morning after the Middle East peace summit collapsed in the Maryland presidential retreat."The process is not over," said strategic analyst Yossi Alpher, a former special adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "It is hard to think that Barak will simply say, 'I'm finished dealing with the peace process.' They're going to have to get back to talking."

What, though, would they talk about?

"They closed some gaps," Alpher insisted. "They made some progress on security and territory. On Jerusalem, what we witnessed was the slaughtering of sacred cows. Barak initiated a public debate, far beyond anything we have known before, on what there is about Jerusalem that is important to us."Perhaps they might now consider a partial agreement. It is conceivable that Yasser Arafat felt he had to make a tough stand but that he can be more flexible next time. We'll be back to business some time, maybe sooner rather than later. And Oslo remains the only frame of reference."

Barak's announcement at the end of the summit that all bets were off ("Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed") was dismissed with skepticism.

"The mere fact," commented the liberal daily Ha'aretz, "that the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were discussed is a turning point from which there is no return. The era of sloganeering is over."Political commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot Aharonot: "What happened at Camp David was not a funeral, nor was it a two-week stand that is now over." The Israeli right was preparing, nonetheless, to deliver its eulogy - on the 1993 Oslo peace formula, if not, heaven forbid, on peace itself.

The Likud opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, said he was willing to discuss joining a national-unity government under Barak. "If he invites me," he said, "I will meet him. The ball is in the prime minister's court. It depends what he decides to do."

On the messianic settler fringe, Rabbi Benny Elon held out a poisoned chalice. "The only peace that will result from Camp David," predicted the far-right National Union legislator, "will be peace among Jews, who will unite now to protect Jerusalem against the joint enemy."

The right, in other words, is ready to join a Barak coalition, provided the prime minister repudiates all the compromises he offered at Camp David: withdrawal from most of the territory still occupied in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; transfer of some isolated settlers to blocks that would become part of sovereign Israel; a token return, under the guise of family reunion, of some Palestinian refugees to Israel proper; a measure of shared control in Jerusalem. But there is no sign that Barak is backtracking.

Dovish Knesset members, from Barak's One Israel, Meretz and the Center Party, are already signaling that they would refuse to join a coalition which, as they see it, would write "finis" to any chance of moving toward peace. Barak would find himself, like Ramsay MacDonald in Britain 70 years ago, as a Labor prime minister heading a Conservative government.

"I don't see how Barak can set up a unity government," said Yossi Alpher, "since it is clear to Sharon what his points of departure are in negotiations with the Palestinians and the Syrians, and these are not acceptable to him. If Barak went for the Sharon option, he would be slamming the door in Yasser Arafat's face, slamming the door in Bashar Assad's face. Only if the assessment shifts to very strong expectations of a violent confrontation with the Palestinians would it look like more of an option."

So far, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are appealing for calm, though both communities have been placed on informal alert.

It remains easier to forecast what Barak won't do than what he will or can. The Camp David failure takes some of the immediate heat off the prime minister. The opposition will be less eager to press no-confidence votes. In any case, the Knesset goes into summer recess next week, which will give Barak a three-month respite.

Assuming he does not rush into the arms of the Likud, he will find it equally hard to reconstruct the broad-based coalition that disintegrated on the eve of the Maryland summit. The pro-settler National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky's Russian immigrant Yisrael B'aliyah remain adamantly opposed to territorial compromise. The Sephardi Orthodox Shas pulled out as soon as Barak announced that he was ready to talk turkey with Arafat.

"One thing is absolutely clear," Alpher acknowledged. "While Barak has a mandate from the people, that mandate is not reflected in the Knesset. He doesn't have a peace coalition."

The only alternative, in that case, would be a "secular" coalition, embracing One Israel, the left-liberal Meretz, Tommy Lapid's militantly anti-religious Shinui, the Arab parties and an assortment of floating legislators. But Barak knew, before he went to Camp David, that he would not be able to rely on the loyalty of these parties or of mavericks within them.

Logic points, therefore, to elections within a year, perhaps even sooner. Barak will try to call them on his terms rather than be forced to go to the nation as a lame duck. But even then, under Israel's discredited two-tier electoral system in which the people vote separately for prime minister and Knesset, there is no guarantee that he will emerge with a more congenial legislature.

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