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Jewish World Review July 17, 2000 /14 Tamuz, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Very well, alone-- Barak's solo -- ISRAEL'S EHUD BARAK has come to the three-way summit at Camp David, but he hasn't left much of a government behind.

At last report, not one, not two, but three of the parties in his tenuous coalition had deserted him -- including his major partner.

The first to go as this summit approached was the small but influential party of Natan Sharansky -- the Soviet-era dissident who defied the KGB for years to become a hero in Israel. His prophetic voice has given his party a moral influence far beyond its numbers.

Warning that peace must be reciprocal, Natan Sharansky preferred to seek a broad-based government of national unity at home before proceeding with negotiations. Besides, he's never been enthusiastic about the prospects of making a lasting peace with the squalid little dictatorship Yasser Arafat is constructing within stoning distance of Israel's capital.

Why so pessimistic? Speaking from his Soviet experience, this now former member of Ehud Barak's coalition explained: "A repressive regime would always need internal and external enemies to justify its policies, and would therefore always pose a threat to peace.''

His grim prophecy: "In the euphoric march toward peace, we seem to be losing sight of the fact that the Palestinian society that will emerge -- a society with no supreme court, no human rights organizations and no bleeding-heart liberals -- will not only undermine the rights of Palestinians, but also endanger the security of Israel.'' And so he walked out of Ehud Barak's cabinet.

A couple of the religious parties soon followed his lead, reducing Ehud Barak's ruling coalition to only a third of the seats in the 120-seat Israeli parliament.

When the votes of no confidence were called for Sunday, the opposition actually got more votes then the government (54 to 52), but not the majority it needed (61) to topple the government, which now hangs by a thread. Israel's foreign minister, David Levy, won't even be present at the summit. He went to the airport to see the prime minister off, but no farther.

Even if Ehud Barak manages to bring back an agreement with the Palestinians, one wonders how he plans to get it accepted.

But none of this seems to have fazed the general and premier. Israel's most decorated soldier seems determined to make peace with the same, commando's elan with which he once waged war. At a time in contemporary politics when leadership seems to have been largely replaced by vacillation, Ehud Barak is striking out on his own. It won't be the first time -- in peace or war.

Nor would it be the first time a single visionary has leapfrogged the bickering Israeli power structure to unite the country behind a new and seemingly radical policy. Ehud Barak could cite a number of forerunners: Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated by a fanatic who opposed his overtures to the Palestinians. Menachem Begin, who had to overcome the opposition of his fellow right-wingers to make peace with Egypt. Or even Israel's first prime minister, David ben Gurion, who had to persuade a balky, collective leadership to declare independence as the British were leaving in 1948.

Israel's Messiah?
At least since Theodore Herzl, the Viennese writer who came up with the idea of a Jewish state at the close of the last century, Zionism has been a succession of singular visions that struck conventional minds as impossible -- yet captured the imagination of the people. Ehud Barak is only the latest in a long line of dreamers.

Taunting the embattled premier during the parliamentary debate, the leader of the opposition, Ariel Sharon, warned the Knesset: "A prime minister who can't make peace in his nation, let alone his own government, can't make peace with the Arabs.''

And yet it may take just such a prime minister -- one willing to risk unpopularity and splinter his coalition -- to make the concessions necessary for peace.

Prime Minister (and General) Barak remained undaunted. "None of these rejectionists,'' he said, "will teach me how to defend Israel and its future. No one will teach me what security is. I must distance myself from all the political controversies and party considerations to find the way to peace that will end the conflict of blood between ourselves and our neighbors.''

The prime minister seemed to be appealing to the people, over the heads of the same old politicians. For what it's worth, one poll showed that, whatever is happening to his majority in parliament, 55 percent of Israelis favored the prime minister's attending the summit, and only slightly less (53 percent) were in favor of making concessions to the Palestinian state rising on the West Bank. No one may be with Ehud Barak except the people.

Yasser Arafat need not worry about the workings of a fickle and tempestuous democracy. To quote his security chief in Gaza, Mohammed Dahalan, on the disarray in Israeli politics: "President Arafat takes care of our internal crises.'' The difference between the two leaders, and the two systems, has seldom been clearer.

Nor is Yasser Arafat's kind of "democracy'' unusual in the Arab world. The next Assad has now been elected president of Syria this week with 97 percent of the popular vote. One wonders if the other 3 percent just forgot to vote or were shot.

That's the Middle East. Some even say that's democracy: "When our people, from all walks of life, trooped to cast their votes yesterday, they were expressing their loyalty and their allegiance to Dr. Assad ... and the democratic system left behind by the great deceased leader,'' said a spokesman for the Syrian minister of the interior.

The definition of democracy can be different in the Middle East. And whether peace is possible may depend on whether Israel's leader can show the same, lone determination at the summit that he has at home. To quote one Israeli columnist, the prime minister may be a clumsy politician, and something of a lone wolf, but "he has courage. He always has had.''

Not too long ago, Ehud Barak promised he'd get Israeli troops out of Lebanon, where they'd been slowly bled for years. And when no one appeared to negotiate the terms of the withdrawal, he simply withdrew them one night -- six weeks ahead of the deadline he had set for himself.

This week, when the time came to decide whether he would go through with this summit, he shook his foreign minister's hand, kissed his wife and bounded up the steps to his plane. Alone.

At the summit, he faces as tough a challenge as he did back in Jerusalem. Already there is talk of a second summit next month. Which is the kind of talk that makes success at this month's all the less likely. For if Ehud Barak implies that his final offer this week isn't final, why should the Palestinians accept it?

Despite all the odds, and all the kibitzers, it would be a mistake to underestimate this man. Peace, too, has its heroes. Abandoned by his erstwhile allies, Ehud Barak plunges ahead without looking back, as if expecting his country to follow, even if its politicos hold back. Like the old platoon leader he is, he doesn't give the order to advance, but instead shouts: "Follow me!''

"You are alone,'' Ariel Sharon warned Ehud Barak during the the parliamentary debates. "You think alone. You decide alone.'' Embracing the opportunity to make peace at Camp David, it's as if Ehud Barak were saying: Very well, alone.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate