July/August 1999

The Barak Conundrum


(July 9) - Prime Minister Ehud Barak has done a stunning job getting to where he is today.

He won a landslide victory over an incumbent nicknamed "The Magician." Then, with a shrunken Labor Party behind him and a bewildering array of mutually incompatible parties facing him, he put together a bulging coalition of 75 MKs.

He's left the Likud-led opposition weak to the point of impotence. He comes into office with more power, possibly, than any incoming prime minister since Golda Meir, certainly since Menachem Begin.

Now the hard part begins.

PM Barak

Barak's government has all sorts of fault lines - Right-Left, religious-secular, Russian-Sephardi. When he tries any of the "bold moves" he's talking about - like making peace with Syria and the Palestinians, or "reordering national priorities" (to the likely dissatisfaction of the haredim and settlers) - there could easily be an earthquake.

"If one of the religious parties ends up leaving the government, there probably will be a domino effect among all [three] of them," said Rabbi Yisrael Eichler, editor of Hamahane Haharedi newspaper.

Shas alone, with 17 MKs, could deny Barak his majority; together with the National Religious Party and United Torah Judaism, the religious bloc has 27 MKs. This is a force Barak will have to reckon with when considering, for instance, whether to cut off funding to what he calls "fictitious institutions."

Then, of course, there's the peace process. More specifically, there are the 17,000 Jews living on the Golan Heights, and roughly 180,000 in the West Bank and Gaza. The only time settlers were ever forced to make way for a peace treaty was in 1982 at Yamit, and although there were only about 5,500 of them, it was traumatic for the Begin government and the nation.

Barak has said the idea of "peace with the Golan" is an illusion, and he hasn't ruled out giving back all of the Golan as Syrian President Hafez Assad demands. In the territories, Barak has pledged not to uproot settlements - but only until the final status agreement goes into effect. He has designated large settlement blocs near the Green Line, like Gush Etzion and the Ariel bloc, as "vital," but offered no such assurances to most of the smaller, more militant settlements in the interior of the West Bank, nor to those in Gaza.

Noting Barak's intention to "concentrate settlers, not settlements," Yisrael Harel, an executive board member and former chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, said: "I have no doubt that he intends to carry out this policy, and I will fight against it, together with the Council and the settlements."

Distant as he is from the Israeli Right, Barak is even further away from the Palestinians. Marwan Kanafani, a Palestinian legislator close to Yasser Arafat, said his people would judge Barak on how he handles the peace negotiations, but added: "We remember the four 'no's' that Barak stated right after his election."

Those were: No return to the 1967 borders, no Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, no uprooting of settlements before the final status agreement, and no Palestinian right of return to Israel.

Peace with the Palestinians, peace with the Syrians, IDF withdrawal from Lebanon within a year and - not last, definitely not least - peace at home.

Israel's new prime minister has set the bar extremely high for himself.

And yet he's proven lately to be an impressive high jumper. First in the election, then in the formation of his coalition, Barak exceeded even the most optimistic expectations and confounded his many critics and doubters.

As recently as the beginning of spring, he was the candidate who, after nearly two years as leader of the opposition, still "wasn't taking off." One prediction was unanimous: The race would be terribly close, just like every election had been since 1981. Nobody, but nobody, was predicting Barak would beat Binyamin Netanyahu by 12%.

Then, as he began forming a government, he was thought to be between a rock and a hard place. He could have a narrow, secular, center-Left coalition - ideologically focused and awfully divisive - or he could have a broad, inclusive coalition that would be politically incapable of making a move.

Yet, Barak has emerged with the broad coalition he wanted, and it has a sharper ideological edge than most observers thought possible.

He brought in Shas, but on his terms - without Aryeh Deri and without the Interior Ministry, which he gave to Shas's enemy, Yisrael Ba'aliya.

He brought in the National Religious Party, but gave the all-important Education Ministry, which the NRP saw as its preserve, to the NRP's political opposite, Meretz.

The Barak government extends out to the right-wing and religious precincts, but its heart is center-Left and secular - which just happens to be the prime minister's own political worldview. With the exception of the Housing Ministry, which went to the NRP, every major portfolio - defense, finance, foreign, education, interior and justice - is held by One Israel, Meretz or, in the case of interior, by Yisrael Ba'aliya, which is expected to run that ministry in a very liberal way.

All in all, not bad for a guy who was still a soldier only 4-1/2 years ago.

"Given that Barak is a political neophyte, and that he had to negotiate with such a wide range of parties while his own party was weakened, he achieved quite impressive results," said Hebrew University Prof. Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel's leading political scientists. "It didn't have to be that way. There were plenty of obstacles that could have tripped him up,"

BARAK'S political appointments, however, were a lot less impressive, and demonstrated why he has been nicknamed "Napoleon." After freezing Labor Party politicians out of the coalition negotiations, and intimidating them into silence, Barak went one step too far: He backed MK Shalom Simhon for the post of Knesset Speaker. The job is an influential, prestigious one, normally given to senior MKs, and Simhon's presence has barely been felt during his three years in the Knesset. His chief qualification appeared to be his absolute loyalty to Barak. One Israel finally rebelled, voting Simhon down and giving the post to one of Barak's few fearless critics, MK Avraham Burg.

The Simhon affair also officially ended Barak's honeymoon with the media, and gave a preview of what he can expect from the press the next time he blunders.

Ma'ariv columnist Ofer Shelah compared the Simhon appointment to the power-mad Roman emperor Caligula's appointment of his horse to the Senate.

"[Barak] proved again that the only people he trusts are yes-men who are lacking in ambition," Shelah wrote. "The make-up of the cabinet is most worrisome for what it reminds us about Barak..."

He gave the foreign ministry to David Levy, who was widely viewed as ineffective in that post twice before. He kept One Israel's two most gifted and popular figures, Yossi Beilin and Shlomo Ben-Ami, out of the foreign and finance ministries. He kept the defense ministry for himself.

So far he has named only one woman as minister (Dalia Itzik, to Environment), and none as a deputy minister. In an Israel Radio interview, Ben-Ami called this a "Third World" approach to gender equality.

And although he received 95% of the Israeli Arab vote, Barak named no Arabs as ministers (although he did bring back One Israel MK Nawaf Massalha as a deputy minister). Thus, he has fallen out with his most loyal constituency.

Yet Haim Ramon, who was named Minister in the Prime Minister's Office With Responsibility for Jerusalem Affairs - whatever that may come to mean - dismissed all this as the kind of personnel problems that come with the territory.

"Even after Rabin formed his government, some people were left dissatisfied, very disatisfied. Some were left out altogether and you read the same headlines then that you read today. There's no avoiding it," Ramon said on Israel Radio.

BARAK has always been a hard man to read. He keeps to himself. He has no charisma, no public warmth, no ideological passions outside the consensus.

One new bit of information about him has surfaced: The new prime minister is a confirmed night owl who works through the night, goes to sleep in the morning and rises towards noon. Add this to the Barak mystique.

He has always been known for being very smart and very ambitious, but few have been able to get a line on his basic political instincts - to get a sense of which way he will turn when push comes to shove.

"I've known Barak for quite a few years, and I must say he is more of a conundrum to me now than ever," said Harel.

Barak pledged to draft haredim into the IDF, Harel noted, then watered down the proposal until it met the haredim's satisfaction. He pledged to run a "fiscally wise" government, Harel added, yet now intends to inflate the cabinet to 24 ministers and eight deputy ministers - at a cost of tens of millions of shekels a year. "This shows no intellectual honesty," Harel said.

Eichler found Barak a "brilliant manipulator," noting that Barak has managed to "humiliate Shas, humiliate Sharon and the Likud, and humiliate his own party." Eichler maintained, however, that this wasn't meant as criticism, but as tribute to Barak's professionalism and craftsmanship. "Politics has nothing to do with values," he stressed.

Avineri, on the other hand, said Barak had demonstrated "strong leadership qualities." During the coalition talks, Avineri said, "Barak was patient. He steered his course in a difficult setting. He showed he could withstand pressure and keep pushing until he achieved his goal."

Barak assumes the prime ministership of Israel in a position of daunting strength. Few people would still dispute that he has the shrewdness and determination for the job; nobody has ever doubted his intelligence. It is Barak's judgement as a statesman that is still untested, but the test will not be long in coming.

©The Jerusalem Post

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