Small World

Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 2000 / 3 Kislev, 5761

Battle plan for Barak:
Make a deal

By Richard Z. Chesnoff -- GOOD SOLDIER that he is, Ehud Barak knows the wisdom of outflanking an enemy on the battlefield. That is exactly what the Israeli prime minister tried doing Tuesday when he announced he was ready to call early national elections.

Members of the right-wing Likud Party had hoped to be the ones to topple Barak's government in a vote in Israel's parliament. But they were cut off at the pass by a feisty Barak. "You want elections?" he asked. "I'll give you elections."

One might argue that diverting national attention to an inevitably cantankerous election campaign is not exactly what the Jewish state needs in the midst of the current round of Holy Land violence. Israelis and Palestinians are firing at each other daily — and Israeli civilians are facing a rising tide of Palestinian terrorism. Isn't one war enough?

Still, by agreeing to a call for elections for next year instead of the scheduled 2003, Barak hopes to give himself and his stalled peacemaking efforts new options. His primary hope is that, with the election clock ticking, he will be able to shock the stalled negotiations with the Palestinians into forward drive. Then, he could possibly come up with enough of a settled package to present to the Israeli electorate by election day.

In other words, the forthcoming elections become less a test of Barak's personal political prowess and more a referendum on a long overdue peace deal — something polls indicate a majority of Israelis still desperately want.

There are plenty in Barak's Labor bloc unhappy with his decision because it places their Knesset seats in premature jeopardy. But Barak also hopes to split Likud. Larger-than-life former Gen. Ariel Sharon is the current head of Likud and, as such, its logical candidate for prime minister.

But former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man Barak defeated in 1999, has finished licking his heavy wounds and is waiting in the wings for a chance at a comeback. There's nothing candidate Barak would like better than a Likud battle royal for power between Sharon and Netanyahu.

Barak is even continuing to talk with Sharon about establishing an emergency government until the new elections that would include Sharon. Barak lost his parliamentary majority just before July's ill-fated Camp David summit with Yasser Arafat and has been trying to mold a broad coalition government ever since.

But by even flirting with a temporary marriage with Likud, not to mention calling elections, Barak is also placing the Palestinians on notice. "You may not like me," he is saying, "but I'm a far better peace partner for you than Ariel Sharon or Bibi Netanyahu" — neither of whom has much faith in the Oslo accords or the whole concept of peace with the Palestinians.

The message seems to be there already. Arafat reportedly phoned Israeli-Arab members of the Knesset on Tuesday to urge them not to vote Barak out of office.

But the Israeli prime minister must do more. One of Barak's near-fatal flaws is a stubborn unwillingness to listen to advice. Barak must open his ears to his allies and advisers. And he must make a dramatic effort vis-a- vis the enemies he wants to make friends: the Palestinians.

Maybe the time has come for the Israeli leader to get on television and speak directly to Israel's closest neighbors, either in Arabic (which he knows to some degree) or in Hebrew with Arabic subtitles, and explain what the peace options are — and the consequences if both sides lose this opportunity.

The situation requires blunt talk as well as full use of the tools for peace. As Yitzhak Rabin proved, good soldiering is vital, but smart statesmanship is essential.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His latest book is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.


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