Barak's Hard Place

Politics and policy.
July 16 1999 3:00 AM

Barak's Hard Place

Why America should calm down about the new Israeli prime minister.

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What a difference a plane ride makes. The Israel I left on Sunday was a nation queasy about peace talks and anxious about its new prime minister, Ehud Barak. Barak's governing coalition was already squabbling viciously, a party allied with Barak had splintered and collapsed, the opposition had called for a no-confidence vote, West Bank and Golan settlers were readying PR campaigns against Barak's peace schemes, and my in-laws were shouting at the television every time Barak came on the screen: "He wants to give it all away!"

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

But landing in Washington on Monday, I touched down in the middle of Barak Euphoria. During his U.S. visit this week, Barak is traveling not by limousine but on a cushion of perfumed air. The Israel Policy Forum's new poll of American Jews finds almost universal support for Barak and his peace proposals. His American visit includes a triumphal march through the Sunday talk shows, backslapping meetings with the U.S. president and vice president, and glowing newspaper profiles. Washington has rarely seemed giddier about a foreign visitor: American papers have suggested that "peace is just around the corner," that Israel is united behind its new chief, that final rapprochement with the Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese is just a matter of proofreading the treaties and scheduling a few ceremonial handshakes in the Rose Garden.

This discontinuity between the thrill in the air here and the "facts on the ground" there (to use a favorite Israelism) is striking and worrisome. America seems to be mistaking the opportunity of peace talks for the reality of a peace treaty. "The challenge facing Barak in the face of this euphoria is the danger of unrealistic expectations," says Tom Smerling, director of the Israel Policy Forum's Washington office.

True, Barak's election is a welcome event for Israel and its Arab neighbors. Benjamin Netanyahu was widely mistrusted and despised by Israelis, and universally mistrusted and despised by Arabs. A majority of Israelis (admittedly a narrow one) favors peace talks, and Barak is the best negotiator Israel could send to the table. He has constructed a broad coalition of pro-peace parties. He has assuaged Israelis by presenting a hard vision of peace: Barak's peace with the Palestinians will be a divorce, not a marriage (as former Prime Minister Shimon Peres imagined). But while Barak may be the best prime minister to bring peace, that does not mean peace will come. Enormous obstacles remain, obstacles that an exultant America should stop and remember.

1The chasm between Israeli and Palestinian visions of peace. Peace with Syria is a (relatively) easy matter for Israel. Israel will surrender the Golan (except for a surveillance base), the territory will be demilitarized, and Syria will stop Hezbollah guerillas from operating in South Lebanon.

The Palestinian problem is much more difficult. Barak and Arafat are willing to conduct final negotiations, but that does not mean their positions can be reconciled. Barak may have been elected largely because he was not Netanyahu, but Barak's publicly stated peace proposals are similar to Netanyahu's. The Palestinians demand: all the West Bank, Jerusalem as their capital, the right of 1948 and 1967 refugees to return, full statehood, and Israeli withdrawal from settlements. Barak rejects all these conditions, except perhaps statehood.

Even the most optimistic Middle East analysts succumb to paralysis when they try to resolve these disagreements. Barak is likely to concede the Palestinians a capital just outside Jerusalem and to allow some refugees to return to the West Bank (though not to Israel proper), but he certainly won't give up all the West Bank or even a square inch of Jerusalem. The Palestinians, who grabbed the moral high ground when Netanyahu sabotaged negotiations, have so far shown little willingness to moderate their demands. The Israelis and the Palestinians (understandably) delayed resolving these issues until final status talks because they were intractable. Now final status talks have arrived and, lo and behold, the issues are still intractable. Already some are predicting the "final" talks won't be final at all: Israel and the Palestinians will again kick the questions of Jerusalem and refugees down the road.

2Heightened Arab-Jewish tension. The mutual loathing and mistrust that divides Israelis and Palestinians is bad enough already, but the peace process promises to exacerbate it. Serious peace negotiations are expected to spark anti-Jewish terrorism by Palestinian extremists bent on sabotaging a half-a-loaf agreement. Jewish extremists will be no happier. Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank may leave Jewish settlements encircled by Palestinian territory. Surrounding well-armed and enraged Jewish settlers with Palestinian land is a recipe for disaster. Anti-Jewish terrorism during the peace talks of the mid-'90s contributed to the Peres government's defeat. Barak's fragile coalition is equally vulnerable if terrorism or settler violence surges. Support for peace could dissolve.

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3 Heightened Jewish-Jewish tension. The peace process also endangers intra-Jewish relations, which are already fraught. Religious Jews are feuding with secular Jews. Sephardic Jews are battering the Ashkenazi establishment about decades of discrimination. Russian immigrants are fighting with the Orthodox rabbis. Any Palestinian agreement will probably require Barak to remove or consolidate West Bank settlements. Any Syrian agreement will undoubtedly require Barak to remove all Golan Heights settlements. There are 170,000 Jews on the West Bank and 17,000 in the Golan. Most of them strongly oppose any plan to uproot them.

Israel had a nervous breakdown when Menachem Begin evicted just 5,000 settlers from the Sinai during the early '80s. Today's settlers, especially West Bankers, are far more militant than their '80s counterparts. Some religious settlers deny the authority of the Israeli government and believe it is their biblical duty to populate the West Bank ("Judea and Samaria"). They will not leave quietly. It is difficult to conceive how Barak can remove 17,000 folks from the Golan and thousands more from the West Bank without fracturing his government.

4The instability of Syria and the Palestinian Authority. Syrian strongman Hafez Assad is old and ailing. His son and heir, Bashar, is inexperienced (he's an ophthalmologist by training). Assad's ruling Alawites are a tenuous minority, only 11 percent of the population. Syria's former patron, the Soviet Union, is dead. Syria's economy is totally broken. As long as Assad lives, he can manage these troubles and keep an agreement with Israel. But if he dies, it's not clear that Syria can control Lebanon or that the Golan border will remain peaceful.

The Palestinian situation is more perilous. Arafat is also ailing and has no clear successor. His authoritarian rule has prevented the emergence of future leaders and the development of strong civic and political institutions. Extremists (such as Hamas) and moderates are already jockeying for power. The Palestinian economy is a disaster, devastated by Israeli limits on Palestinians working in Israel. The return of hundreds of thousands of destitute Palestinian refugees from camps in Lebanon and Jordan will only compound the economic misery.

So if Barak gets his final deal with the Palestinians, Israel may find itself with a new kind of problem: an autonomous Palestinian state, a stone's throw (literally) from sacred Israeli territory, that is sinking into Third World poverty, anarchy, and civil war. This could be a peace, even a good peace, but it won't be cause for euphoria.