One odd fact has hung over the violence that has descended upon the Middle East: The current Israeli government is more committed to a peaceful settlement than any that might replace it. Prime Minister Ehud Barak genuinely wants to make peace. The question is whether the Israeli people are behind him. The details of his offer at Camp David surprised many Israelis, but that does not mean they would not back a deal. His decision to call snap polls will test their resolve: The country’s commitment to a fair and equitable peace with the Palestinian people, and the prospect of enduring peace in the region, hang in the balance.
Mr. Barak called the election this week as his government lost its majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and faced a no-confidence vote that it would have lost. Instead, the prime minister has left his fate to the Israeli people. That is a gamble.
Although Mr. Barak came to power in a landslide win 18 months ago, his record in office is unimpressive. He withdrew Israeli troops from Lebanon as promised, but that is the only campaign pledge he kept. He did not make peace with Syria and the Palestinians within 18 months. The uprising of the last two months is the worst in decades and there is the danger of a resurgence of terrorism that brought his predecessor, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, to power. There is little hope of a ceasefire.
Moreover, Mr. Barak’s domestic support is weakening. Israel’s Arabs and Russian immigrants have backed away from him. Even Labor Party loyalists are said to be dismayed by the prime minister’s arrogance and penchant for playing his cards close to his chest. There is no guarantee that Mr. Barak will lead his party in the election: Reportedly, former Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is weighing a challenge.
Nonetheless, Mr. Barak seems confident. To win, he will need a real peace agreement, however, and not just an end to the violence. His chief difficulty may prove to be balancing priorities: negotiating a deal while fighting an election campaign.
That gives Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat considerable input. If he can control the violence — and does so — then the odds of a deal get better. The problem is that he has already rejected Mr. Barak’s best terms. The Israeli prime minister has indicated that any agreement that is now possible will be limited in scope and will not be a final peace deal with the Palestinians. If that sounds unpleasant to Mr. Arafat, Mr. Barak can point to the alternative.
The current leader of the Likud opposition is Mr. Ariel Sharon, the rightwing former general whose visit to the Temple Mount triggered the recent violence. Mr. Sharon opposes territorial concessions to the Palestinians. He prefers an interim pact that freezes a peaceful status quo. A pragmatic nationalist, Mr. Sharon concedes that a Palestinian state exists in all but name: He wants to ensure that it is marginalized and incapable of mounting a security threat to Israel.
Most opinion polls show the prime minister running neck and neck with Mr. Sharon. The wild card is Mr. Netanyahu. He has staged a quiet comeback in recent weeks and the polls show him besting Mr. Barak by a margin of 2-to-1. That might explain why the the prime minister’s decision to call polls two years early has not ended talk of a “national unity” government. Those talks are reported to have stalled over Mr. Sharon’s demand for a veto on peace talks. Likud insiders say that Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters are the real obstacle: They know that a national unity government would lock Mr. Sharon in the top spot and deny Mr. Netanyahu a comeback.
Some Palestinians argue that there is no difference between Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharon, that they are two sides of the same coin. That is untrue. Only the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has matched Mr. Barak’s desire for a peace treaty with the Palestinians. Mr. Arafat may not like what he was offered by Mr. Barak, but he will not get more from a different Israeli prime minister. Just as important, however, is the simple fact that the Israeli people are not going to endorse any agreement, nor support any government, that they perceive to be insufficiently attentive to Israel’s national interest.
That would seem to give Mr. Arafat leverage in the coming months. He can help Mr. Barak by trying to rein in the violence, prove that he is a credible negotiating partner and reminding the Israeli people that he is someone with whom they must deal. Of course, Mr. Barak can counter that Mr. Arafat has no better negotiating partner than himself. In other words, both men, and the people they profess to represent, are best served by a peace process worthy of the name.
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