When Israeli voters go to the polls next week to elect a prime minister, Ehud Barak will be consigned to political history, and Ariel Sharon will move into the newly vacated post.
Sharon has effectively waged a campaign of silence, allowing the failed peace process and the daily, continuing Palestinian violence to speak for themselves.
Sharon knew, as his advisors surely knew, that unless Barak was able to cut a deal with the Palestinians that was acceptable to most Israelis and unless he was able to halt the violence, he would have no chance of re-election. There was simply no point in reciting ideological differences while blood was flowing in the streets of Israel.
What, then, went so drastically wrong for Barak, Israel's most highly decorated war hero, who made the most generous offer that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is ever likely to receive from an Israeli prime minister?
A clue can be found in the recently concluded talks at the Egyptian resort of Taba, where the Palestinians knew Barak would present his maximal offer in an effort to secure a last-minute, election-winning deal.
The protracted negotiations ended Jan. 27 with a joint statement in which the two sides spoke warmly and enthusiastically of the "unprecedented... positive atmosphere and mutual willingness to meet the national, security and existential needs of each side."
Then came the curt announce-ment that all contact with Arafat would cease and that further negotiations with the Palestinians would be put on hold until after the Feb. 6 election.
The obvious question was, with 10 days to go before the election and the two sides apparently so close, why not press ahead and cut a deal?
The answer is that there was, in fact, no deal in the offing. But each side, for its own reasons quite different reasons, had an interest in dressing up the Taba encounter in the most attractive guise.
Barak needed a positive outcome to demonstrate to his electorate that even as Israelis continued to be the target of Palestinian bombers and gunmen, he continued to hold the key to peace. Elect me, he seemed to be saying, and with just one more push we will reach the promised land.
At the same time, he canceled a proposed summit with Arafat in Stockholm the following Tuesday because, although he is presenting himself as the "peace candidate," he knows that a photo-op with his much-reviled "peace partner" would win him few votes come next Tuesday.
As for Arafat, the Palestinian leader has two conflicting objectives: he needs to be seen traveling hopefully but never actually to arrive.
He needs to demonstrate to the new Bush administration, to European leaders and to others who offer him political and financial support -- and who must by now surely understand his elaborate double game -- that he is indeed seizing every opportunity to strive for peace.
At the same time, he needs to demonstrate to his own hard-line constituency -- much of which is opposed to any deal with Israel under any circumstances -- that he is not about to be suckered by the Israelis.
The bottom line is that Arafat believes he has more to lose than to gain by declaring an end to the conflict and making peace with Israel. He knows that such a deal could cost him his head.
There are simply too many vested interests in keeping the conflict on the boil. Despotic regimes which have been constructed to a greater or lesser extent on their hostility to Israel, such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, would likely face serious destablization if a central pillar -- the Palestinian question -- were suddenly to be removed.
So when Arafat appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan. 28, he balanced the warm words of Taba with a heavy dose of his own brand of realpolitik.
The Israeli leader had just offered the Palestinians virtually the whole of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, shared control of Jerusalem and recognition of a Palestinian state.
But when Arafat rose to address delegates, he told them that Israel was waging "a savage and barbaric war as well as a blatant and fascist military aggression against our Palestinian people."
For those who might have missed it in the past, Arafat was turning on yet another bravura performance, demonstrating once more his ability to walk the high wire, which has allowed him to dominate the media agenda and catalyze two civil wars (in Jordan and Lebanon) while holding down one of the most perilous jobs over the past 30 years.
But Arafat is more than simply a clever circus act. He is a tragedy -- for Israel and for his own people.
He destroyed the career of Ehud Barak, potentially one of the great prime ministers of Israel and potentially one of the greatest benefactors of the Palestinian people -- certainly the only ruler in the long and bloody history of the area to have offered the Palestinians a state of their own.
There will eventually be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, if only because there is no alternative. But it will not come soon, perhaps not for generations. In the meantime, much blood will be spilt and much heartache will follow this historic missed opportunity as Arafat hands the reins to the psychopathic killers within his ranks.
Blood and tears. That is likely to be the legacy of Arafat, the terrorist who could never quite bring himself to exchange the gun for the olive branch.
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