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Jewish World Review Dec. 1, 2000 / 5 Kislev, 5761

Eric Fettmann

Eric Fettman
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What broke Barak

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- MAYBE Prime Minister Ehud Barak was just jealous that Florida and its dimpled chads are threatening Israel's reputation as the world's most screwed-up political system.

At any rate, he bowed to the inevitable Tuesday night and agreed to new elections, moments before the Israeli Knesset would have voted to hold them anyway.

This being Israel, however, he and the opposition Likud bloc, headed by Ariel Sharon, have very different notions about when those elections should be held: Barak envisions balloting six months off, while Sharon - rightly concerned that the prime minister would use the time to offer more concessions to Yasser Arafat in hopes of reaching any kind of agreement - wants to cut that time in half.

Whenever the elections are held, they represent an unprecedented - and once unthinkable - collapse of Barak's governing ability. This, after all, is the man who galloped into office with 56 percent of the vote just last year. Yethe has functioned without an effective parliamentary majority for months now.

Barak - one of Israel's most successful military commanders - has fallen victim to his inability, or refusal, to look at the current situation in the Middle East from a realistic military perspective.

The recent weeks of violent rioting and attacks by Palestinians have opened the eyes of many Israelis, including those on the political left, to the nature of the PLO's true intentions. But Barak seems unwilling to take the steps necessary to quell the rioting - for fear they will jeopardize chances of returning to the negotiating table.

Instead, as one leading Israeli general told The Post this week, the prime minister and the Israel Defense Forces have decided that no quick end is in sight for what has been dubbed "Intifada II." Israelis, he said, must settle in for the long haul of daily shooting attacks and the constant threat of suicide bombings.

Which proves only that Israel learned nothing from the previous intifada, the six-year-long daily assaults by Palestinian stone-throwers, with which the Israeli government was never able to deal effectively. In the end, writes Norman Podhoretz in the December issue of Commentary, "It was [Yitzhak] Rabin himself and a large segment of the Israeli people who were broken by the intifada: broken in spirit, broken in morale."

Barak, too, has feared to tackle the current rioting from a military perspective - despite ample evidence, since the most recent Camp David summit, that Arafat has no interest in reaching a political settlement, except entirely on his own terms.

Consider, for example, the "white paper" Barak just issued: Titled "Palestinian Authority and PLO Non-Compliance: A Record of Bad Faith," it sets forth in convincing terms exactly why Arafat is not a legitimate, trustworthy partner for peace.

Indeed, it's precisely the argument that opponents of the so-called peace process have been making for years.

So it begs the question of why Barak - even in the face of deadly attacks on Israelis, officially sanctioned and encouraged by Arafat - is trying to cajole the PLO leader back to the bargaining table.

It's precisely this kind of waffling, this inability to deliver a clear message and provide a sense of national purpose - while, at the same time, telling his people that they must accept a continued state of siege - that explains why Ehud Barak is fighting for his political life.

A growing number of Israelis have come to accept that the Palestinians have, for all intents and purposes, declared war on them. And they're dismayed by their leader's refusal to respond in kind; his insistence, as Sharon puts it, on "waging a hesitant battle against the increasing terror, without setting clear aim: to abolish terror and return security to the people of this country."

Barak, anxious to please Bill Clinton, clings to the Oslo process despite Yasser Arafat's concerted effort to kill it. Sharon argues that "Oslo is no more" and "we must head in another direction."

On this basic issue, Israelis are just as divided as Americans are over the current election impasse. In the Middle East, however, the stakes are peace and survival - and, like America, Israel can ill afford political deadlock and uncertain leadership.


JWR contributor Eric Fettmann is a columnist for the New York Post. Comment by clicking here.

11/17/00: Back from the brink?
11/10/00: 'Stolen election': An ugly precedent

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© 2000, Eric Fettman