September/October 2000

Is Ehud Barak a Right-winger?

By Daniel Pipes

(September 27) - Is Ehud Barak really the ultra-left-winger he appears to be, the prime minister who offers more concessions than any of his predecessors to the Arabs? Or might he be a shrewd nationalist who is just going through the motions of diplomacy?

The second idea sounds crazy, but give it a hearing. According to well-informed analysts, on taking office in mid-1999 Barak heard from intelligence that unless he gave Syria's Hafez Assad and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat everything they demanded, they would reject his diplomatic overtures.

Assad insisted on regaining Syria's pre-1967 borders; the Palestinians demanded full sovereignty over their holy places in Jerusalem. Offered as much as 95 percent of their demands, they would say no to the whole package.

According to these analysts, Barak understood that he could offer almost everything to his Arab interlocutors, knowing that they would turn him down.

He saw this as a painless opportunity to offer vast concessions, thereby winning a reputation for magnanimity without ever having to deliver. He had to do two things however: stop short of offering enough for the Arabs to say "yes," and convince the world of his sincerity by some great acting.

From the very start of his prime ministry, some observers suspected this extraordinary deception.

The Middle East Media and Research Institute wrote about Barak tricking the Syrians by pretending to be flexible in ways he was not, thereby leading them into what the Syrians called "a trap." The Left devised the epithet "Barakyahu," pointing to the similarities with his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Arabs complained about Barak seeing negotiations as "a public relations job" (as the Syrian newspaper A-Thawra put it).

"We do not see a difference between Barak and Netanyahu," commented Ikrima Sabri, Arafat's appointee as mufti of Jerusalem.

A Jordanian columnist even longed for the good old days of Netanyahu.

A year later, some analysts are more convinced than ever that Barak is a secret hardliner.

COMMENTATOR Yosef Goell has presented the argument in these pages. How else, he asks, can one explain Barak's agreeing to "give up all of the Golan [which would truly have endangered Israel] and then to oppose ceding another few square kilometers"? This makes sense, Goell reasons, only by viewing the seeming generosity on the Golan Heights as "a trap for the greedy Assad to up his ante beyond any reasonable limits" - and end up with nothing.

Ditto for Jerusalem, writes Goell: Barak knew that no matter how generous he would be, Arafat would turn him down. And so, "putting Jerusalem on the table was a trap set by Barak for Arafat." The scheme worked. Barak got the rejection he wanted and "the goodwill of US President Bill Clinton and his team" into the bargain.

Short of Barak's confessing all, there is no way to prove this thesis. There are, however, bits of evidence to support it. For example, writing in Ha'aretz, Uzi Benziman reports on July's summit at Camp David that Barak's associates believe "he took a dangerous gamble by agreeing to Clinton's latest proposal, based on his assumption that Arafat would reject it."

Those same associates further noted that, at times during the summit, "when it appeared that Arafat and Clinton were reaching some form of understanding . . . Barak's face clouded over and he was seized by anxiety."

If true, this strategy helps unravel several mysteries: Why, against the advice of many on the Left, Barak insists on negotiating only a final status agreement (rather than more feasible interim agreements). Why Shimon Peres and Leah Rabin have of late condemned him. Why Barak persists, even after the Camp David II fiasco, with new proposals for sharing the Temple Mount. Why he is so extremely secretive.

Further, the strategy has all the hallmarks of Barak's career-long signature approach: go to the heart of the enemy via deception.

Could it be true that Barak is playing so sophisticated and dangerous a game?

This writer, author of two books dismissing conspiracy theories, is plenty reluctant to believe that things are other than what they appear to be. And yet ...

Arab-Israeli diplomacy lends itself to double games because the various leaders find themselves under huge pressure to settle their differences. If Barak really is pretending to want to sign agreements with his foes, he is doing nothing more strange than Assad and Arafat have long done.

The writer is director of the Philedelphia-based Middle East Forum.

© Jerusalem Post 2000

Reply to Daniel Pipe's Jerusalem Post Op-Ed " Is Ehud Barak a right-winger?" - No

Dear Daniel Pipes,

I would follow your argument in today's Jerusalem Post that Barak is manipulating Arafat if Barak insisted on requiring a complete and final agreement with the Palestinians. But he does not.

Consider his comments just this week:

"Communicated by the Prime Minister's Media Adviser - Jerusalem Sunday, September 24, 2000

At the beginning of the weekly Cabinet meeting today (Sunday), 24.9.2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared that we are approaching the moment of truth in the peace process with the Palestinians.

...Prime Minister Barak stressed that while we would prefer to settle all disagreements and resolve all of the issues, we do not rule out the possibility of achieving a comprehensive and overall agreement on most issues while defining a mechanism and timeframe for negotiating a settlement on the very few remaining issues.

Prime Minister Barak said that it would be a mistake on our part to propose a third alternative in the form of an extended interim agreement during which we would continue to transfer assets without getting anything tangible in return. He noted that we should be wary of providing Arafat with an opportunity to avoid making the important decisions which we are all waiting for and said that we must continue to exhaust all chances of reaching a settlement which will resolve most or all of the issues, if this is possible."

I know that the Prime Minister Barak in the last paragraph sounds pretty clear that only a fool would agree to an interim agreement but he failed to convince the Prime Minister Barak in the penultimate paragraph to insist on not being foolish. This other Barak wants to give Arafat the farm in return for "a mechanism and timeframe for negotiating a settlement on the very few remaining issues." The Oslo process is chock-a-block with such "mechanisms and timeframes". None of them were honored. And in each case, Israel faced international pressure - as well as Palestinian violence - to make concessions so that negotiations could be completed to the satisfaction of the Palestinians.

Finally, by openly accepting the possibility of a partial agreement AND saying that the conclusion of a deal depends on Arafat's response to Clinton's proposals, Barak effectively gave Clinton carte blanche to come up with a partial agreement that Arafat can live with, leaving further concessions on Jerusalem and the refugees etc. for another round of negotiations/violence.

This is far from grand strategy.

The only thing standing in the way now is that Mrs. Clinton's campaign advisors are concerned that too extreme a bridge agreement may hurt her stand in New York.

But maybe Barak has ALSO factored this into the scheme? Hard to buy since it assumes Clinton cannot flip the blame on the Israelis. Akiva Aldar plastered Ha'aretz last week with Beilin-Mazen INCLUDING the map to establish a considerably inferior benchmark of what could be considered acceptable to Israel. And lest we forget; Barak's spin team is intimately tied to Clinton's spin team (they are partners in a company jointly owned by none other than James Carville himself). They will do whatever they can to insure that their Israeli boss provides cover against American Jewish criticism of Clinton.

If only you were right.

Best regards,
Dr. Aaron Lerner, IMRA

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