Ehud Barak likes to keep things under control. So it's easy to
understand why the Israeli leader seems unraveled. In the past few
months, Barak has overseen a complete about-face in Israel's relationship
with the Arab world. Negotiations with Palestinians have flamed
into open violence that has all 10,000 of Israel's regular soldiers
deployed in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. For the first time
since the Gulf War, a full Arab summit was called in October--with
the express mission of censuring Israel.
In the midst of all this, Barak is hanging on to his office only
by good grace. The ultra-orthodox Shas Party pulled its 17 seats
from the government coalition in July, just before Barak headed
to Camp David for a summit with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Reports of the concessions that Barak made, including Palestinian
sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, caused right-wing
members of his government to resign in protest. Barak currently
has the support of approximately one-third of the Israeli parliament,
although Shas has agreed temporarily not to abandon ship. "Many
people will tell you that [Barak] is a bright person," says Israeli
journalist Danny Rubenstein. "But he is a lousy politician. The
only reason that he is still in power is because it is a state of
emergency. Those on the side of the peace process say that he asked
for a total end to the peace process. The situation is one that
can't be dealt with like that. It is a slow process that must be
Israel's right faults Barak for trying to give too much to a Palestinian
leadership they say is ill-willed. "Arafat was never a peace partner,"
says Helen Bohrer of Beit El, a settlement north of Ramallah. "The
Arabs were never a peace partner. They have their own agenda."
Ehud Barak and Ariela Sharon
visited Chicago in mid-November
to attend the General Assembly of United Jewish Communities;
2,500 people turned out to protest.
Even the Israeli military has criticized Barak--who was once a
general himself. When a lone Palestinian shot and killed one Israeli
security guard and wounded another on October 30, Barak ordered
air strikes on official buildings in the Palestinian areas. But
army officers called the helicopter strikes ineffective, according
to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, because they did little real
damage, while at the same time escalating the tension in the West
Bank and Gaza.
Barak has tried to stave off his political demise by forming a
national unity government with right-wing leader Ariel Sharon. Talks
broke down, however, when Sharon insisted on approving all decisions
in the new government. "There will be no veto over the prime minister,"
Instead, it appears that both Barak and Sharon will eventually
be overtaken by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently
was cleared of allegations of financial irregularities. Current
polls show Netanyahu would defeat Barak in a two-way race to lead
the country, despite Barak's overwhelming defeat of the hawkish
leader in the last Israeli elections. Netanyahu was also more popular
Perhaps the only thing that Barak will be remembered well for is
getting Israel out of Lebanon. Making good on a campaign promise,
the prime minister unilaterally withdrew from south Lebanon in July,
a move that was met with resounding Israeli applause. Public support
for the 18-year occupation had dwindled due to the high number of
But Lebanon still plagues Barak. The Lebanese government does not
accept the lines to which Israel has withdrawn, and Hezbollah has
vowed to continue its attacks until Israel is all the way out. In
early October, Hezbollah dramatically rose in stature in the Arab
world when it captured three Israeli soldiers and a man they say
was a spy. In exchange for their release, they are demanding that
Israel free the Lebanese in its own jails. At some point, Israel
will have to respond.
For now the Barak government is making do with quelling the unrest
in the occupied territories. Public demonstrations have been augmented
by Palestinian fighters firing M-16s at the Israeli settlements
in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli military has responded with
attack helicopters, ground missiles and tanks in Palestinian civilian
areas. Nearly 200 Palestinians and more than a dozen Israelis have
been killed. Amnesty International has condemned the Israeli use
of force as "possible war crimes."
At the funeral processions of Palestinians killed in the clashes,
marchers are carrying a new flag-- the yellow banner of Hezbollah.
Palestinians are looking to the group for inspiration--only repeated
military strikes on Israeli targets pushed Israel to withdraw from
Lebanon, they say. Even if the bloodshed stops, both sides see little
hope for negotiations. "After this, I can't imagine peace," says
Mustapha Abu Aker, whose Bethlehem-area home was hit by rounds of
Israeli machinegun fire. "Who will pay for the martyrs and the strikes?"
Rubinstein concurs. After the attacks from areas under Palestinian
control, he says that Israelis will never agree to further troop
withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza, as called for in current
peace agreements. Instead, he believes that the low-level warfare
will continue. "We are going to be like Lebanon," he says in frustration.
It seems that instead of getting Israel out of Lebanon, Barak has
brought the northern front a little closer to home.
Charmaine Seitz is managing editor of Palestine