No. 433 29 Sivan 5760 / 2 July 2000
PRIME MINISTER BARAK'S FIRST YEAR:
DIPLOMACY AND POLITICS
An Optimistic Beginning / The Peace Process: What Happened to Reciprocity? / A
"Calendaric" Straight-Jacket / How Much U.S. Involvement? / Coalition Politics
and National Priorities
An Optimistic Beginning
Prime Minister Ehud Barak's tenure started out with almost everything going his
way. He had what was often, though misleadingly, described as a "landslide
victory" in the 1999 elections (though, in truth,
voters gave him only a slim 3.2 percent majority over Netanyahu - compared to
the almost 12 percent margin by which Netanyahu had defeated Peres in the
previous elections). Nonetheless, it is true that Barak achieved better
electoral results than most other prime ministers in Israeli history. As a
result, no Israeli prime minister in recent memory had begun his term with a
greater degree of goodwill from different segments of the population -
including many who had voted for the other candidate.
Barak swiftly mended fences with our all-important American ally, especially
with the White House, though it soon transpired that, paradoxically, his close
relationship with the Clinton administration - which perhaps had its beginnings
even before he became prime minister - sometimes also created constraints on
Israel's freedom of action in certain matters.
Undoubtedly, there was an initial feeling of optimism in all spheres. The
process of improving relations with the European Union (EU) and of widening
Israel's diplomatic relations was also expanded. Israel's association status
with the EU was completed. European governments reached a consensus for the
first time to agree to limited admittance of Israel to the Western European and
Others Group (WEOG) at the United Nations, which will eventually permit Israel
to be nominated to the UN Security Council and other key UN bodies. At the
funeral of King Hassan of Morocco, Barak exchanged words with Algerian
President Abdel-aziz Bouteflika, which raised the possibility of new Israeli
ties in the Arab world. All in all, many people felt that "peace with security"
could actually be achieved as promised.
Yet for many of Barak's supporters, the greater the expectations, the greater
the disappointment. Objectively speaking, many of the targets Barak set for
himself would have been unachievable in any case. For example, how realistic
was it to speak of an "
of the Arab-Israel conflict in one year"?
The Peace Process: What Happened to
With regard to the peace process, according to some observers - and not
necessarily only in Israel - Barak has shown a surprising lack of proficiency
in his negotiating tactics. He squandered his predecessor's important
achievement of lowering the extreme expectations of the Palestinians - raising
them instead. His readiness to rashly turn over Arab villages adjacent to
Jerusalem, like Abu Dis, to full Palestinian control (Area A status) only
fueled PLO expectations about gaining a foothold in Jerusalem itself in a final
status agreement. Barak did not hold PLO Chairman Arafat sufficiently
accountable when he instigated large-scale Palestinian violence in May -
including by the Palestinian police - as a means of putting pressure on Israel.
Indeed, Barak pushed approval of the handing over of Abu Dis through the
Knesset on the very day that Palestinian police were firing on Israeli solders.
There is little doubt that one of the factors affecting Palestinian behavior
was the removal of the concept of reciprocity from the peace process. During
the period of the Netanyahu government, reciprocity was woven into the
implementation of Israeli-Palestinian accords. After an unprecedented upsurge
in terrorist bombings in the heart of Israeli cities from 1994 through early
1996, it was essential to find a means of assuring Palestinian compliance with
the anti-terrorism obligations in the Oslo Agreements before more land would be
turned over. In the 1997 Hebron Protocol, the two sides first agreed,
, to structuring the entire implementation of the 1993 Oslo Agreement on the
basis of reciprocity. The U.S. formally agreed to this formulation when U.S.
peace coordinator Dennis Ross signed the "Note for the Record." But it was in
the 1998 Wye Agreement that reciprocity moved from a matter of principle to
part of the very fabric of the accord. Implementation of Palestinian
commitments - particularly with respect to the dismantling of the Hamas and
Islamic Jihad military infrastructure - became a prerequisite for moving from
one phase to the next in implementing Wye.
Just recently, Barak's Interior Minister, Natan Sharansky, who also
participated in the Wye negotiations, bitterly complained in a
New York Times
Op-Ed piece on June 5, 2000, about the loss of reciprocity: "When Ehud Barak
came to power, determined to breathe new life into the peace process, he
quickly abandoned the principle of reciprocity. Now all Palestinian commitments
have been forgotten and the days of good will gestures to the Palestinians for
the sake of improved climate have returned."
By giving up on reciprocity, Barak was taking a calculated risk. For example,
he did not make the collection of illegal firearms a precondition for more
territorial withdrawals. Notably, in the case of the Irish Agreement, British
Prime Minister Tony Blair was willing to freeze the peace process until the
Irish Republican Army showed that it was ready to disarm. By removing
reciprocity, Barak seemed overly eager to reach an agreement. It is not
surprising that, under such conditions, Palestinian expectations have increased
along with greater pressure for further Israel concessions.
Against perhaps Prime Minister Barak's own better judgment, he promised the
Palestinians a Palestinian state in most of the territories, abandoning
long-held, important Israeli security positions - without getting anything in
return. Barak now appears ready to abandon Israel's claim to the Jordan Valley,
long designated by past Israeli strategists as a vital area for Israel's
defense. It is ironic that Barak, who views himself as the late Yitzhak Rabin's
successor, is conceding the Jordan Valley, which was viewed to be so critical
by both Rabin and his mentor, Yigal Allon.
On the Syrian track, Barak was saved by the bell from giving in to the
intransigent demands of the late Syrian president, who demanded more than the
Golan Heights by insisting on the actual shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.
Barak's negotiating style did not succeed in modifying Syrian expectations any
more than those of the Palestinians.
Actually, Barak's main achievement may have been the decision to withdraw from
Lebanon - but also in this respect, there has been some criticism of the way
this was accomplished. For example, it is probable that the Palestinian
perception of Israel, inexact as it may be, retreating in the face of
Hizballah's "armed struggle," has hardened the PLO position with respect to
A "Calendaric" Straight-Jacket
No less puzzling was Barak's habit of putting himself in a "calendaric"
straight-jacket. One does sometimes try to impose such timetables on the other
side, but why put constraints on oneself? He may have used these deadlines to
demonstrate the seriousness of his commitment to peace, and therefore to obtain
a "diplomatic line-of-credit" from the international community, in general, and
the Arab world, in particular. But there was a price to pay for these
deadlines. Not only did this undermine his position vis-a-vis both the Syrians
and the Palestinians, but by not achieving any of these deadlines, Barak seems
to have compromised his freedom of action in the negotiations - as well as
creating some problems for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Ultimately, the international benefits from Barak's diplomacy of deadlines were
very limited. Only Mauritania established diplomatic relations with Israel,
beyond what was achieved by 1996. Thus, Israel was not able to extend its
limited ties in the Persian Gulf from Qatar and Oman to new states like
Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. The same was true for Islamic
states like Indonesia and Pakistan. Finally, with respect to Arab states with
which Israel has full diplomatic relations - Egypt and Jordan - there was no
movement towards improved normalization. Even King Abdullah was only willing to
visit Israel by coming to Eilat, instead of to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem like his
How Much U.S. Involvement?
At the beginning of his term, Barak had stated, quite correctly, that he
intended to curtail the U.S. role in the negotiations with the Palestinians -
only to have the tables turned on him by Arafat as early as the Sharm el-Sheikh
negotiations, which brought the U.S. peace team, including Secretary of State
Albright, back into the negotiating room. The enhanced American involvement
must not necessarily be seen as always being negative, but in the perception of
the Palestinians, it is an instrument to put pressure on Israel. Recently,
Barak himself has been seeking a Camp David-like summit with President Clinton
and PLO Chairman Arafat in order to reach a "framework agreement" on the final
status. Thus, Barak's own position on the U.S. role has made a 180-degree turn.
Coalition Politics and National Priorities
Not only did Barak consider himself a political centrist, but he decided to try
to set up as wide a coalition as possible. The direct election of the prime
minister weakened the major parties (since voters could split their ticket),
thereby requiring that a prime minister have keen political skills in coalition
management. Barak was the first Labor prime minister who had to start his
coalition formation with a Labor bloc of only 26 seats (only 23 of which were
Labor party members). He realized that most of Israel's public opinion was
positioned in the political center. Furthermore, the center-right parties had
actually garnered more votes in the 1999 Knesset elections than the
Yet it should have been clear to him that when one puts such divergent partners
- ranging from the almost extreme right to the almost extreme left - in the
same harness, it would be only a matter of time until his coalitionary vehicle
started losing its wheels. It was not realistic to believe that the
center-right part of his government, let alone the center-right
in the country, would support policies that went beyond what even most Israeli
"doves" had advocated in the past. What's more, how could it be possible to
reconcile the opposing views of his partners on almost everything else - from
religion to the rule of law, from national pride to teaching vitriolic
anti-Israel poetry to Israeli schoolchildren? Each of the forces in the Barak
government has neutralized each other in important areas of domestic policy, so
that much of the change that Barak hoped to bring about is impossible to
The peace process is important, but it should not be the
criteria for designing Israeli coalitions. What is needed more than ever is a
new Zionist and Jewish center that can meet the simultaneous challenges that
Israel is facing and break the government stalemate that has set in. The
Israeli government must make more serious efforts to close the widening
socio-economic gap. The centerpiece of its policy, tax reform, is proving
impossible to implement since, on the one hand, it does not adequately address
the grievances of the weaker, salaried portions of the Israeli workforce,
while, on the other hand, it penalizes those who have been the engine of
Israel's economic growth. Equally, the gap between the religious and secular
sectors in Israel continues to expand. Rather than permitting Israel's
educational establishment to be under the control of a small, post-Zionist
elite, Israeli schoolchildren need renewed faith in their state and people.
Why hasn't Barak succeeded? Was it just a lack of leadership or a lack of
experience - or perhaps an unrealistic appreciation of one's own capabilities?
Or maybe a combination of all of these? The often-cited fact that Barak was
Israel's most decorated soldier has proven irrelevant. After all, as is true in
other countries as well, history has shown that even the best of generals do
not always make the best of statesmen or leaders. Barak can still turn his
premiership around, but he will need to assess his mistakes and reorder his own
priorities to fit the pressing needs of the nation.
* * *
Zalman Shoval served as Israel's Ambassador to the United States from 1990 to
1993 and from 1998 to 2000. He is Chairman of the Israel Chapter of the Board
of Overseers of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. A veteran member of
Israel's Knesset (1970-1981, 1988-1990), Ambassador Shoval was a senior aide to
the late Moshe Dayan during his tenure as foreign minister in the Begin
government, including during the Camp David conference, and later he
participated in the Madrid Peace Conference and served as a member of the
Israeli team negotiating with the Jordanian and Palestinian delegations.
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