March/April 2000

ISRAEL: 'Stuck in a kind of Limbo'

By Larry Kaplow, Cox News Service, The Hamilton Spectator, February 11, 2000

After the Lebanon flare-up, a stalled peace process and illegal funding revelations, Israelis are concerned Ehud Barak is doing an about-face on his promises and that their Dr. Jekyll is fast turning into Mr. Hyde.

Mevaseret Zion, Israel

Stopping in a coffee shop after exercise class last week, three Israeli friends talked about whether they had been right to vote for Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

"I voted for change," said Nili Israel, 47, who has a son in the Israeli army and a daughter who will serve in a few years. She hoped Barak could bring peace.

"He promised us a lot of things, but he turned out to be completely the opposite person of what I thought he was," said Ella Naimi, a 50 year-old professional mediator. She says Barak has ignored the Israeli economy.

"It's like we are in a fog," said Nurit Persitz, a 49 year-old architect.

Tomorrow was supposed to be a landmark, when Israelis and Palestinians would map out a general plan for settling their final disputes.

Instead, the peace process is stalled and bitter. Israeli talks with Syria also are at a standstill. And worse still for these mothers in suburban Jerusalem, fighting between Israel and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas claimed six Israeli lives in the last two weeks. There were no Hezbollah casualties.

Israel responded with repeated air raids on Lebanese power stations and Hezbollah camps, wounding about 15 civilians. Barak found himself visiting Israelis in bomb shelters.

Lifting the "fog" that Persitz sees will require a return to the details of peacemaking. American officials, convinced they are on the verge of stability in the Middle East, will need to be closely involved, preparing all sides for tough concessions.

When there are crises here, it often means that people are ready to deal.

"Whenever you get down to the real tough issues, there is always a real crustiness," said Kenneth Stein, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Atlanta's Emory University. "Both sides still want an agreement, they just don't like the contours."

Success will hinge largely on Barak, the man who raised hopes in the first place when he campaigned for election last May. The former general's image as the can-do commando, the self-proclaimed "number one soldier," is suffering.

"They are really disappointed," said Israeli journalist Shimon Shiffer, who happened into the coffee shop. "He really has a problem."

Tomorrow's deadline for a peace outline with the Palestinians came up at Barak's insistence to renegotiate the Wye River Plantation agreement, which was signed by his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The deadline would have been a major milestone in the six year-old Oslo peace process.

Under Oslo, the Palestinians agreed to drop their armed struggle against Israel in exchange for control of land in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which Israel captured in 1967.

But, Barak put off the latest land transfers while he conducted negotiations with Syria. Then, the Palestinians rejected the barren land he was offering and halted the talks.

By this weekend, Israelis and Palestinians were supposed to outline solutions to the toughest issues in the process – who should control Jerusalem, where will the final borders of Israel stand, what happens to Palestinian refugees? While no one expected tomorrow's deadline to be met, most thought the two sides would at least be meeting.

Pro-Oslo Israelis hoped Barak could lead the country to make a deal with the Palestinians, but they are not so sure anymore.

"We are stuck in a kind of limbo," said Israeli Ron Pundik, who helped design the Oslo accords. He said Barak does not seem to know what concessions to make for peace.

"There is no doubt that his maximum at this stage would not be enough to meet their minimum," he said.

American diplomats will need to reassure Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that it's worth it to him to return to the negotiations.

"Arafat is under tremendous pressure internationally and cannot make a deal that is seen as a sellout," said University of Pennsylvania Middle East expert Ian Lustick. "Arafat wants Barak to share some of the political costs."

Barak is in limbo with the Syrians, too. Israeli hopes were almost euphoric in December when Barak reopened talks with Syria for the first time in nearly four years.

The Syrians want the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from them in 1967. Israel wants normal diplomatic relations and assurances that Syria will not use the Golan plateau to launch attacks on Israel. Israelis also want peace on their border with Lebanon, which is in large part controlled by Syria.

Barak predicted when the talks started in December that agreement could come within months and showered Syrian president Hafez Assad with praise. But the Syrians walked out on those talks last month and many Israelis felt Barak's flattery had gone too far.

The immediate problem here is a kind of Catch 22 about the order in which the topics will be discussed.

Syrians do not want to offer anything until Israel agrees to a complete withdrawal from the Golan first. Israelis do not want to promise the Golan until Syria states what it will give up.

American mediators can serve here to bridge the gap.

For example, they could promise the Syrians that, if they return to negotiations, America would press Israel to return all the Golan. They could promise Israel that, in exchange for the Golan, America would keep an eye on the Syrian military and press Syria to open full relations with Israel.

But, it could all still hinge on Barak's relations with people in the malls and coffee shops of Israel.

He has promised to let them vote on any peace deals he initials.

Referendum results could depend on Barak's credibility, which is suffering these days with his first political scandal. Police are investigating his campaign fund-raising after a government comptroller reported that his party flagrantly violated election laws.

A Gallup poll last week showed only 45 per cent of Israelis supporting Barak when asked if they would vote for him again over Netanyahu. That's down from the 56 per cent he received in the election.

Stein suggests that Barak turn to core political issues, such as fulfilling campaign promises to fix Israel's lagging economy.

That appeals to people like architect Persitz. She's willing to give Barak another chance, but says the scandal has shaken her faith in him.

"I thought Netanyahu's party was corrupt, but now we're seeing the same thing," she said. "We feel like we are a banana republic. I didn't believe it could happen."

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