Emerging from arduous interparty negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak has presented his nation — and a waiting world — with a rainbow coalition whose sweeping diversity may just be what it takes to revive the dormant Middle East peace process.
Following his landslide victory over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu May 17, Mr. Barak spent six weeks coaxing and bargaining with a multitude of parties to gain the 61 seats necessary to claim a majority in Israel’s 120-member Parliament, the Knesset. At this point, Mr. Barak has managed to give himself a comfortable cushion with 75 seats.
With the July 8 deadline for forming a government looming, Mr. Barak clinched victory when he signed a coalition deal June 30 with the powerful ultra-Orthodox Shas, a dovish group that is the largest religious party and, with 17 seats, the third-largest party in Parliament. Some Labor Party members expressed dismay at having to share power with a party that has been accused of seeking to create a Jewish fundamentalist state. However, the pact has enabled Mr. Barak to exclude from the government the Likud bloc, whose hardline nationalist positions would have undermined the new leader’s declared aim of quickly reaching peace agreements with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon.
The phrase “strength in diversity” is a well-worn cliche, but it rings true when applied to the coalition Mr. Barak has cobbled together. The alliance, which now includes One Israel, the Center Party, Meretz, Israel B’Aliya, the Nationalist Religious Party and United Torah Judaism — and may grow yet further — represents virtually all segments of Israeli society. While the coalition is a mix of parties with contradictory policies and visions of how Israel should function, the government will be so large that no single bloc will be in a position to destabilize it or topple Mr. Barak. Moreover, while the coalition parties may share little in common, all have an interest in advancing the peace process.
The Israeli electorate’s overwhelming rejection of Mr. Netanyahu was a stinging indictment of reckless policies aimed at burying the peace process initiated by his Labor predecessors, the late Mr. Yitzhak Rabin and Mr. Shimon Peres. Mr. Barak was elected on the basis of his promise to get the peace process moving again. Although his government has yet to take power, the former general has wasted no time. Mr. Barak says he will push in coming weeks for legislation permitting enlargement of the Cabinet from 18 to 24 ministers, a move that will allow him to expand his coalition. With the support of up to 87 Knesset members, including 10 Israeli Arabs, Mr. Barak believes he can push through a final peace accord with the Palestinians that would likely include the granting of independence to much of the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Mr. Barak has also reached out to the Palestinians, calling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat “an important and central partner in the diplomatic process,” and has pledged to meet with him soon. Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have reacted positively to Mr. Barak’s statement, and expressed hope that he will carry out the U.S.-brokered Wye River agreement, a West Bank land-for-security accord signed, but later reneged on, by Mr. Netanyahu.
To complete the circle of peace around Israel, Mr. Barak must also end the state of war that persists between his nation and its northern neighbors, Syria and Lebanon. Mr. Barak is said to believe that a deal with Syrian President Hafez Assad over the disputed Golan Heights can be made relatively quickly, and that reaching a peace agreement with Syria will be his new government’s first priority. Recent events have added muscle to such rumors. Although compliments are rare in the Middle East’s rancorous political environment, Mr. Assad extended a surprising gesture of friendship to Mr. Barak, calling him a “strong and honest man” who has a “real desire for peace.” Mr. Barak was equally magnanimous in return, praising the Syrian president for building a “strong, independent, self-confident country.” Reaching an accommodation with Damascus will enable Mr. Barak to fulfill his campaign promise to bring to an end Israel’s costly 21-year occupation of south Lebanon. While it will not be easy to reach agreements with Damascus and Beirut, Mr. Barak is confident enough to bet his political future that it can be done.
Obstacles remain on the road to peace. Recent events, however, suggest that both Israeli and Arab leaders realize that the benefits of peace far outweigh any gains won through conflict. This new thinking must remain the core of Israeli and Arab efforts to reach a comprehensive and just peace settlement.
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