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Running Low

Down on his luck, Barak faces one political blow after another

by David Landau

March 9, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Prime Minister Ehud Barak is down on that commodity so essential to a politician -- luck.

On Tuesday, in a screaming headline, the country's largest-circulation daily, Yediot Achronot, announced that an unnamed minister was under investigation for sexually molesting a staffer.

Within hours, the name was out -- Yitzhak Mordechai, the transportation minister and former defense minister, who now heads the Center Party.

By the end of the day, Mordechai announced he is taking a leave of absence while police investigate the allegations, which he vehemently denies.

On the face of it, this incident is not connected with the Cabinet's unanimous decision on Sunday to withdraw all Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by July.

In fact, though, that historic decision was intimately linked to Barak's sinking domestic political fortunes and to the increasingly perilous state of his uneasy "peace coalition."

Surfacing this week, the Mordechai affair deals Barak's motley coalition another awkward blow.

The Cabinet decision expressed the government's hope that the withdrawal would take place in the framework of an overall peace agreement involving Israel, Syria and Lebanon.

But the Cabinet ministers also made clear that they support the withdrawal even in the absence of such an agreement.

And there lies the crux of the problem for Barak, who has staked everything on reaching a peace deal with Syria. By separating the two issues -- withdrawal from Lebanon and a deal with Syria -- Barak may find it more difficult to win the necessary popular support for a deal with Syria.

Sources close to the prime minister maintain, despite official denials in Jerusalem and in Washington, that intensive behind-the-scenes negotiations are taking place between Israel and Syria.

They say formal talks could resume soon and that if they do, it will signal that the basic elements of an agreement have been concluded in the back-channel contacts.

They claim that if this scenario plays out, a treaty-signing ceremony bringing together Barak, Syrian President Hafez Assad and President Clinton would be held before the summer.

The Cabinet's deadline for a Lebanon withdrawal -- July 7 -- would fit comfortably into this scenario.

The Cabinet decision culminates years of controversy over Israel's military presence in the southern Lebanon security zone, which Israel carved out 15 years ago.

It reflects the increasing impact on public opinion of the pro-withdrawal lobby, which cuts across party lines, embracing people like the dovish justice minister, Yossi Beilin, and, more recently, Likud leader Ariel Sharon.

It reflects, too, the impact of the Four Mothers, a grassroots group of mothers -- and fathers -- of Israeli soldiers serving in the security zone who have been demonstrating and protesting for months in favor of a unilateral withdrawal.

The deaths of seven Israeli soldiers in Lebanon since the beginning of the year, coupled with the frustrating suspension of the public Israel-Syria talks, has greatly heightened public sensitivity to the pro-withdrawal campaign.

But the Cabinet decision also reflects -- and to no small degree -- the domestic political considerations weighing on the prime minister.

Barak has staked his all, in political terms, on a treaty with Syria. He pledged in last year's election campaign that the final decision on any treaty would be taken by a national referendum.

He needs to win that referendum convincingly if he is to continue as prime minister. A defeat would almost certainly trigger new elections.

Yet Barak's situation at the moment, with the Syrian deal not yet done and the public growing increasingly restive, is far from encouraging.

Opinion polls see the country split down the middle over surrendering all of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria.

Compounding his problems, the government last week suffered an embarrassing defeat in the Knesset, which gave preliminary approval to a bill requiring that the referendum be approved by more than 50 percent of all eligible voters rather than by the more easily attainable majority of those who actually vote.

In a dramatic blow to Barak's prestige, the opposition-sponsored bill was supported by three of his coalition partners -- the immigrant-rights Yisrael Ba'Aliyah Party, the National Religious Party and the fervently Orthodox Shas Party.

Opponents of the bill charge that the bill is designed to "neutralize" the Israeli Arab vote and thereby ensure that if the Golan is ceded, the decision is made by a majority of Jewish Israelis.

During the Knesset debate preceding the vote, spokesmen for the government termed the bill racist, adding that it reflected a deliberate effort to thwart the prospects for reaching an agreement with Damascus.

The subsequent Knesset vote provided an ominous warning for Barak. It meant his coalition is wobbling -- and also that his hopes of carrying the referendum with a sweeping majority may not be realized.

Barak knows that the referendum would have a far greater chance of approval if the withdrawal from Lebanon is part of a peace deal with Syria.

For the same reason, the Likud opposition demanded this week that the two elements be uncoupled.

"If you've decided to withdraw from Lebanon," Sharon urged, "do so at once.''

But the opposition's charge that the government is exploiting the army's embroilment in Lebanon by linking it to the talks with Syria is now hard to sustain -- given the Cabinet's pledge to withdraw the troops by July even if there is no agreement with Syria.

This unequivocal pledge, the government's first formal commitment to Barak's central campaign plank last year, has become not only the touchstone of the premier's political credibility. It has also become the bastion of his survival.

So strong is the public yearning to end the Lebanon quagmire that Barak is now safe until the commitment is implemented. From there, it is not clear what will happen.

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