Thursday, 3 August 2000

Defection not likely to deter Israeli PM

Barak says he expected Foreign Minister's exit

Thursday, August 3, 2000

By Matthew Kalman

Jerusalem -- A calmly defiant Prime Minister Ehud Barak vowed yesterday to continue with Mideast peace efforts, despite the resignation of one of his senior ministers and a parliamentary move to call early elections.

As he surveyed the debris of his shattered government coalition yesterday and contemplated his future, the 58-year-old former soldier seemed deaf to the chorus of politicians and experts singing his political requiem.

The resignation of Foreign Minister David Levy -- who quit over what he said were concessions over the fate of Jerusalem made by Mr. Barak in last month's peace talks with the Palestinians -- left the Prime Minister exposed and isolated on the battlefield of Israeli politics, but he looked and sounded far from beaten.

Smiling calmly, Mr. Barak said he expected Mr. Levy's exit (the 10th minister to quit the cabinet in the past year) and regretted it, but "I am committed, first of all, to moving the state of Israel forward and averting the danger of war, strengthening the country through peace agreements."

He also insisted that he had not made concessions at last month's peace talks in Camp David, Md. "Until now we have not made any concessions, we have not agreed to anything, nothing is signed, nothing is on paper."

Yet he is convinced that a historic peace deal with the Palestinians will be concluded before the agreed mid-September deadline, and that the Israeli people will approve it -- and approve of him -- in an election he will call as a referendum on the peace pact.

Despite what appears to be an uphill battle, Mr. Barak has a bit of breathing room. The Knesset adjourned yesterday for a three-month recess after giving approval to first reading of a bill calling for early elections (it must be approved twice more to take effect). This gives Mr. Barak until late October to finish an agreement with the Palestinians.

He can also use the interval to patch together a new coalition and stop the unravelling of his government, which began after most of his coalition partners quit over his decision to go to Camp David.

A former army chief of staff and the most decorated warrior in Israel's history, Mr. Barak's critics accuse him of behaving as if he were still in uniform, making decisions alone and barking orders instead of participating in the collegial give-and-take of cabinet government.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man he once commanded in the elite commando unit where they both served, suffered the same sort of criticism, which eventually led to his defeat at the polls to Mr. Barak. Mr. Netanyahu's demise began with the exact same overture -- the resignation of his foreign minister, the same David Levy, and the same vote by the Knesset in favour of early elections, at the same end-of-term session exactly two years ago.

But Mr. Barak insists that the comparison stops there.

"The Netanyahu government had effectively come to the end of its agenda and had lost the support of its most committed supporters on the extreme right," he said after the Knesset vote. "As a result, there was a feeling that it was there just in order to survive and the people decided to bring it down."

In comparison, he said, "This government is setting out on a tremendous push for profound changes, both in our political-security situation and on socio-economic issues."

But at a stormy meeting of his One Israel Party caucus, Mr. Barak was warned by colleagues that unless he can strike a peace accord, he will not be able to count on their support once the Knesset returns.

Leading the dissidents within his own party was Avraham Burg, the popular young Speaker of the Knesset, who refused to rule out a leadership challenge to Mr. Barak before the next election.

"The rosy picture which you are drawing is a black one," Mr. Burg told him. "You lack the qualities of leadership. If you want to pursue the process alone, you will find yourself alone. If you want other people with you, you must share your plans with them."

But Mr. Barak's critics cannot escape the fact that he won the last election, fulfilled his promise to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon after a 22-year occupation, and has come closer than any of his predecessors to a final peace treaty with the Palestinians.

He has vowed that any treaty will include a promise that the Palestinians will have no more demands of Israel -- something Mr. Barak is betting most Israelis will find too tempting to reject.

But Tommy Lapid, a popular MP for the small Shinui Party, warns that Mr. Barak cannot focus on security and military issues alone.

"Mr. Barak must understand that he cannot survive politically only on the basis of negotiations with the Palestinians," said Mr. Lapid. "He must conduct negotiations with the people living in this country."

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