Israel is a divided country. There are long-standing differences between Arabs and Jews, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, and Labor and Likud supporters — the last a split that has roughly mirrored the divide between hawks and doves. In recent years, those divisions seem to have intensified. Worse, new ones have arisen: between secular and religious Jews, between longtime residents and recent immigrants. The antagonisms reached a peak in 1995, when a hardline Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, shattering the myth that, for all their differences, Jew would never kill Jew.
This is the country that Mr. Ehud Barak, the former general turned Labor Party leader, inherited this week in his stunning election win. His task is to heal those divisions and unite Israel. If he succeeds, he can bring real peace to the region. He can succeed, too, with the political will and support from Israel’s allies and from friends of Middle East peace.
Mr. Barak won a convincing victory over incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. With over 80 percent of the voting public turning out for the election, there is no mistaking the new prime minister’s mandate. Traditionally, Israel’s elections are decided by narrow margins; Mr. Barak’s double-digit victory win is almost unprecedented. As former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, one of the moving forces behind Israel’s peace agreement with the Palestinians, said, “As of today, this is a different Israel.”Sort of. Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party is the big loser in the vote: According to projections, its representation in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, fell from 32 seats to 19. But One Israel, Mr. Barak’s coalition of three parties, also lost seats, going from 34 to 27. One of the big winners was Shas, a religious party, that has supported Mr. Netanyahu. Mr. Barak may be able to create a center-left coalition, but the opposition forces will be formidable. Since real movement will require consensus — and the new prime minister has pledged to create one — hopes for speedy progress on the peace talks are sure to be disappointed.
Slow progress is better than no progress, however, and Mr. Barak has pledged to move forward. In his acceptance speech after Mr. Netanyahu conceded defeat, he vowed to remove Israel’s troops from Lebanon within a year. That in turn will require some talks with Syria, which is the real power in Lebanon.
If anyone in Israel is capable of cutting a deal with Damascus, it is Mr. Barak. As Israel’s most decorated soldier, he can be counted on to safeguard the country’s security. Yet, like Mr. Rabin, also a former general, he is committed to peace. In his victory speech, Mr. Barak promised to fulfill his predecessor’s legacy.
Among Palestinians, Mr. Barak is known as a tough negotiator, but he is positively contrasted with Mr. Netanyahu, “a nonnegotiator.” Although the Palestinians expect movement, and the United States, Israel’s chief backer, will try to provide momentum, the peace process will be slow. The new prime minister is a relatively inexperienced politician. In addition, he has promised to begin a policy review of the negotiations. That will buy him time to build a consensus within Israel for a final peace deal.
In the interim, there are several steps he can take to resume confidence building between Israel and its Arab neighbors. First, he should suspend all settler activity: No new developments should be started, no existing ones expanded. During the campaign, he pledged to maintain a settler presence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but there is no need to increase those already present. Second, Mr. Barak should suspend the former government’s order to close the Palestine Liberation Organization offices in East Jerusalem. Mr. Barak vowed to maintain control over all of Jerusalem, but according to the Oslo accords, the status of Jerusalem was to be decided in the final phase of the peace talks. If Mr. Barak wishes to fulfill Mr. Rabin’s legacy, then he should honor the original agreement. Finally, if he is serious about reuniting the country behind him, Mr. Barak should try to craft the largest possible coalition government. That means including Likud. Although the election was bitterly fought, that is not as much of a stretch as it sounds, since Mr. Netanyahu resigned as party leader in the wake of his defeat. Mr. Barak probably does not need Likud to make peace, but he will need the party to maintain it. Israelis voted for Mr. Barak, but they also voted against the deepening divide in their country. Enlisting all Israelis to help secure the peace is the best way to ensure that it survives — and to live up to the responsibility that Mr. Barak has been given.
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