The Camp David summit looks like the boldest gamble by an Israeli leader since the founding father, David Ben-Gurion, declared the Jewish state in May 1948, to the rumble of invading Arab guns and the chattering teeth of his own querulous associates. Ehud Barak flew to the United States this week determined to make peace with the Palestinians, but with his coalition government and parliamentary support in tatters.
Three of Barak's coalition partners - the Sephardi Orthodox Shas, the pro-settler National Religious Party and the Russian immigrants' Yisrael B'aliyah - resigned at the very prospect of a peace agreement that would require Israel to yield more territory in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The foreign minister, David Levy, declined to accompany Barak to the Maryland retreat, where Menachem Begin set a pattern for peace with Egypt's Anwar Sadat in September 1978.
Commenting in Yediot Aharonot, the novelist Meir Shalev called the coalition defectors rats of a very special kind. "These rats," he wrote, "are not deserting the ship when it is sinking, but when it sets sail." In Ha'aretz, Yoel Marcus compared the prime minister's embarrassment to Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony, which ends with each musician rising in turn to put out a candle and leave the stage until the conductor stands alone in the darkness.
Barak is celebrated as Israel's most decorated soldier, a veteran of some of the most daring commando operations behind enemy lines. He is also the least experienced politician among the 10 men and women who have served as the country's prime minister over the past 52 years. In the current crisis, he is showing both sides of his record.
He is going for broke at the summit. Peace, he believes rightly or wrongly, is attainable. And peace is worth the risks. In a governing culture tainted with faction, interest and compromise, that takes rare courage. "I need to stand above all these political differences and all these party considerations," a beleaguered Barak said, "and to make every possible effort in the search for a peace agreement which will end the bloodshed between us and our neighbors."
Yet he cannot blame anyone else for the humiliation of his disintegrating base. His ambition to be "everybody's prime minister," the head of a government embracing left and right, religious and secular, Eastern and Western, Jews and Arabs, was doomed from the start.
You can, as he had, serve as everybody's chief of staff. The army is, by definition and consensus, everybody's army. But democratic politics is about the clash of conflicting ideals, conflicting interests and conflicting claims on national resources. In a society like Israel's, still defining its identity and its place in a hostile geographical environment, such conflicts cannot be wished away. Rivals are not silenced with jobs, handouts and sweet talk - not for long, anyway. The voters elect leaders, who then have to make hard choices that won't please all the people all the time.
The three parties that have now bailed out of Barak's coalition all served in the Likud administration headed by Binyamin Netanyahu. By instinct and ideology, they were more at home with the nationalist right. They never pretended to support the kind of territorial compromise that even the most "moderate" Palestinian might swallow. As soon as Barak put them to the test, they jumped ship.
Foreign Minister Levy was another short-sighted import. A former construction worker, he was a product of the Likud, a protégé of Menachem Begin, who fostered him as a rallying point for the large, disaffected North African Jewish minority. Barak bought him over with a top place on his One Israel list for the 1999 elections - as a symbol of ethnic reconciliation - then flattered him with the Foreign Ministry.
Yet as soon as he needed some serious diplomatic spadework, Barak assigned it to other confidants whom he evidently judged to be better qualified. Levy may have been genuinely uneasy with the emerging Palestinian deal, but he was also hurt and insulted. As he demonstrated in his break with Netanyahu in the previous government, he knows how to take his revenge. He did so this week by rejecting Barak's invitation to join him in Maryland, though he remains at the Foreign Ministry and is serving as acting prime minister in Barak's absence.
With or without his foreign minister, with or without a government, with or without a parliamentary majority, the prime minister persisted in going to the summit. He is putting his faith in the 56 percent of the population who gave him a mandate for peace and for change a year ago under Israel's two-tier electoral system, where citizens vote separately for prime minister and parliament.
"In the coming days at Camp David," Barak told them, "I will need to take my strength from you, the people. I will know that I am there on your behalf." Speaking at Ben-Gurion airport after suffering a moral 54-52 defeat in the Knesset, he promised "to try and return with an agreement that will strengthen Israel, an agreement that will be brought for the approval of the people, because the people sent me and gave me a mandate, and only they will decide." Monday night's no-confidence vote fell short of the absolute majority of 61 to force him to resign.
Barak's game plan is to go over the heads of the politicians. If, as he wishes, he negotiates a compromise peace that ends the conflict with the Palestinians but leaves Israel strong enough to defend its independence, he will call new elections and take it to the people.
There are signs that Barak may have judged the popular mood better than his tormentors and detractors. An opinion poll published in Yediot Aharonot on Monday found 52 percent supporting his decision to go to the summit, with 45 percent thinking he should have stayed home. Asked whether the prime minister still had a mandate to make concessions to the Palestinians, 53 percent said yes, 44 percent no.
Another survey, Tel-Aviv University's "Peace Index," found 61 per cent of Jewish voters still supporting the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Now all Barak has to do is convince Yasser Arafat.