GUEST COLUMN

Don't Expect Israel to Change Overnight

By David Bar-Illan, Daily Telegraph

19 May 1999

Ehud Barak's landslide victory on Monday was not a triumph for Israel's Labour party. Unlike the victories of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder, Barak's election has brought no shift from Right to Left.

Nor was it a victory for Israel's doves. On the contrary. Even after incorporating into its ranks the dovish religious party Meimad and the social-agenda party Gesher, Labour lost more than a fifth of its Knesset seats. And while Netanyahu's own party, the Likud, was even more thoroughly trounced, its votes went to other right-of-centre parties, not to the dovish Left.

It is, then, a personal rather than an ideological victory for Mr Barak. Or, more precisely, a personal repudiation of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Most observers view this as an inevitable result of a long, vituperative campaign which focused on personalities rather than issues. On a personal level, Netanyahu was far more vulnerable than Barak. Throughout the three years of his stewardship, he was savaged by a merciless media assault on his character, abetted by unsubtle calumnies from world leaders irritated both by his policies and arrogant manner.

By the election, he had become everyone's favourite villain, an enemy of peace, a man devoid of principles and incapable of telling the truth. That no one could point to a single major discrepancy between his promises and his performance seemed immaterial. To berate Netanyahu and wish his downfall became politically correct. "Unseat Netanyahu and save the peace," went the conventional wisdom.

In fact, few leaders have been more consistent than Netanyahu. Unlike his martyred predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin - who had vowed never to recognise the PLO, never to negotiate with Yasser Arafat and never to relinquish the Golan, but was ready to renege on all three - Netanyahu did not deviate from what he said he would do. He scrupulously adhered to the Oslo accords, while insisting that the Palestinians reciprocate by fulfilling their commitment to combat terrorism. With such reciprocity, he said, the Oslo principle of "territory for peace" might work. Without it, the formula would become the sheer insanity of "territory for terrorism".

This insistence on Palestinian participation in the anti-terrorist effort is undoubtedly responsible, at least in part, for the dramatic decline in terrorist activity in the past three years. It is a considerable achievement, considered virtually unattainable not long ago. But it was lost in the avalanche of personal invective.

Nor has the world noticed that Netanyahu was the first Likud leader who made most of his followers accept the partitioning of the Land of Israel. His agreements with the Palestinians, unlike those signed by the Labour government, enjoyed overwhelming support both in the Knesset and with the public. They were an affirmation of a historic truism: only political hawks can have the broad support necessary to make peace.

But perhaps Netanyahu's most impressive achievement was in the economic sphere. The Likud-led government began a transformation of the Israeli economy - moving it from irresponsible spending and stifling centralisation to budgetary prudence and free-market principles. In three years it halved inflation, made unprecedented cuts in the national budget, dramatically reduced the trade deficit, privatised more than all previous governments put together, deregulated the currency, attracted more foreign investments than ever, and survived the worldwide economic crisis - all without raising taxes. The world's leading economists have praised Netanyahu's performance, but these achievements, too, were overshadowed by the campaign rhetoric.

Such rhetoric does have the advantage of becoming obsolete, irrelevant and eminently forgettable the day after the election. And in facing the business of government, Barak will find that the Netanyahu legacy is both solid and helpful.

The world, used to blaming Netanyahu for the freeze in the peace negotiations, expects Barak to "put the peace process back on track". But the problems of the peace process have little to do with personality. There is little difference between Barak's vision of the "final status" agreement with the Palestinians and Netanyahu's. Both are committed to an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, both consider the Jordan valley to be Israel's strategic border, both oppose withdrawing to the 1967 armistice lines, and both have pledged to keep the settlements under Israeli control. That Barak may be willing to concede a little more of the West Bank to the Palestinians than Netanyahu would is hardly enough to bridge the gap with Palestinians ambitions. Even what Barak feels Israel can safely forfeit is far short of the Palestinians' minimum demands.

This irreconcilable gap makes expectations for quick progress in the peace negotiations less than realistic. There are those who expect Barak to form a coalition with parties to his Left, including the Arab parties, and accede to Palestinian demands. The "peace now" camp in Israel, as well as the European governments and some influential elements in the US administration, believe that the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital will conduce to peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

But even if Barak wishes to reach such an agreement with the Palestinians, he does not have the coalition in the Knesset to support it. Nor is it likely such a solution could ever be sold to the Israeli public.

While most Israelis seem to believe that the Oslo process would inevitably produce a Palestinian state, very few support the establishment of such a state unless it is demilitarised. This means that it must be prevented from allowing terrorists from operating from its territory, raising a large army, concluding treaties with such regimes as Iraq and Iran, and importing thousands of "volunteers" to join its armed forces. In short, it cannot be fully sovereign.

The recent Palestinian insistence on reviving the UN partition resolution of 1947 as the basis for Palestinian-Israeli peace makes the difficulties loom even larger. This 52-year-old UN recommendation, rendered null and void by the Arab war against its implementation, is a prescription for Israel's destruction deemed unacceptable by all Israelis.

Nor is Barak's intention to resume talks with Syria and his pledge to withdraw from Lebanon by May 2000 likely to be easily realised. The Syrians are demanding an Israeli commitment to relinquish the whole Golan before they agree to negotiate either peace with Israel or Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon.

It is, then, unrealistic to expect drastic changes in Israeli policies as a result of the election. What is more likely is a change in style, which many would welcome, and which may improve the government's image both internally and abroad. If Barak can achieve greater understanding for Israel's position, his personal victory will truly be a turning point in Israel's history.

DAVID BAR-ILLAN


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