POLITICS JULY 24, 2000
In a private conversation with recently resigned Interior Minister Natan Sharansky shortly after becoming prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak said his goal was the creation of a Palestinian state in 50 percent of the West Bank. Until about a month ago, when the Israeli press leaked details of the Stockholm talks, it was widely assumed that no Israeli leader would dare offer Yasir Arafat more than 75 percent. This week, as Barak and the Palestinian leader meet at Camp David, both numbers are far too low to even merit discussion. What was once inconceivable is now inadequate.
There are essentially two deals Barak can make, and neither is acceptable to the Israeli public. He can give in to Arafat's non-negotiable demands: Accept the principle of full withdrawal from the West Bank (which means compensating the Palestinians for settlement blocs with territory inside Israel); accept some form of refugee return; and, most important of all, recognize Palestinian sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem (excluding the Jewish Quarter). In exchange, he would receive a declaration by Arafat that the conflict is over. Or Barak can accede to most, but not all, of Arafat's demands:Withdraw in stages from about 94 percent of the West Bank without offering additional territory within Israel, accept limited "reunification of families" without agreeing to the principle of the right of return, and give the Palestinians control over outlying Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount but retain full Israeli sovereignty over the Old City. In exchange, he'd receive a continuation of the peace process--and of the conflict.
The first deal would provoke open revolt. After all, during the 1999 campaign, Barak promised to ensure that Jerusalem would remain united under Israeli rule. "Rabin liberated Jerusalem, and Barak will protect her," went the slogan. But Arafat won't end the conflict unless Israel dismembers Jerusalem.So Barak can bring home a deal that promises peace but violates his most solemn commitment. Or he can gradually yield most of Israel's bargaining chips in exchange for a vaguely worded formula intended to convince the Israeli public that the conflict is nearly over while reassuring the Arab world that it is not.
If Barak chooses the first option, he will be following the advice of his chief negotiator with the Palestinians, Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. Although Ben-Ami publicly adheres to Barak's cautionary position, privately, according to a well-connected source, he believes that in principle Israel should withdraw entirely from the West Bank, to the border of June 1967, just as it has on the Egyptian and Lebanese fronts. In practice, that means that if Israel does retain any settlements, it must compensate the Palestinians with land inside Israel proper. What's more, Ben-Ami backs Palestinian sovereignty over most of the Old City. The minister's support for maximalist Palestinian demands is hardly surprising: he is a professional capitulator. A favorite of the Israeli press because he is an intellectual, a Sephardi, and a dove, the former history professor and diplomat has made a career of appeasing pressure groups. He helped sell Barak on the disastrous coalition with the ultra-Orthodox Shas, promising an illusory alliance for peace between traditionalist Sephardim and secular Ashkenazim.And he negotiated last year's shameful surrender to Islamic fundamentalists in Nazareth, agreeing to build a mosque adjacent to the city's holiest Christian site, the Basilica of the Annunciation, because Christians, unlike Muslims, wouldn't riot.
During the Stockholm talks, Ben-Ami privately complained that Barak wasn't being "generous enough." Barak believed Israel wasn't legally obliged to withdraw to the 1967 border because a Palestinian state had never existed; therefore Israel wasn't required to compensate for settlement blocs with Israeli territory. But then, the day before he left for Camp David, Ben-Ami turned euphoric. He had just met with Barak, he told a confidant, and believed an agreement was imminent: "There will be no second or third summit. He's ready to settle now." Barak, said Ben-Ami, had accepted the principle of almost total withdrawal, with settlement blocs exchanged for Israeli land. On the refugees, too, Barak was ready to make a deal, perhaps 100,000 returnees over a 10- or 15-year period. Still, Ben-Ami told Barak that even those concessions weren't enough and that he needed to emulate Rabin's recognition of the PLO with an equally bold gesture: recognizing Palestinian self-determination in the Old City. Barak remained noncommittal.
But, despite Ben-Ami's enthusiasm, it's hard to imagine that Barak will endorse his negotiator's maximalism at Camp David. The much more likely deal is the second--an almost-final-status arrangement that creates a Palestinian state on most of the West Bank and in suburban Palestinian neighborhoods that will be detached from municipal Jerusalem, in exchange for a pledge by Arafat to keep talking rather than shooting. That would let Barak reassure the Israeli public that he has kept Jerusalem more or less united, and it would let Arafat tell the Palestinian public that he gave nothing in return. Still, Israelis would find it hard to accept that a deal on Jerusalem, which until recently had been touted as the bottom line--including a Palestinian flag on the Temple Mount--wasn't the end after all but merely an interim solution.
There is, of course, a third option. Barak could adhere to his previous position--a final deal that offers most but not all of the West Bank and some Jerusalem suburbs in exchange for an explicit end to the conflict. A majority of Israelis would support that compromise, but it is entirely theoretical: Arafat would not agree, and the summit would fail. Both the Israeli army and the Palestinian police are now training for that possibility. Palestinian leaders have threatened mass marches into settlements and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem; Palestinian refugees in Lebanon could try to cross the border into Israel.
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way for Barak. The withdrawal from Lebanon wasn't meant to happen unilaterally but as part of a deal with Syria, which would have isolated Arafat and forced him to make greater concessions. Barak, by contrast, was to face Arafat as head of a powerful coalition ranging from the ultra-hawkish National Religious Party to the ultra-dovish Meretz. In fact, the reverse has occurred. Arafat, emboldened by Syrian intransigence and Hezbollah's rout of Israel, has come to the summit determined not to compromise. Barak, meanwhile, is the most enfeebled Israeli leader ever to try to negotiate peace. Instead of co-opting Benjamin Netanyahu's outsiders' coalition of Sephardim, Russians, and ultra-Orthodox into a government of "everyone," as he repeatedly put it, he is left with his nightmare: a coalition of the secular Ashkenazi left wing dependent on the Arab vote.
The result is that no matter what happens at Camp David, Barak will have to abandon one of his most cherished goals. No Israeli leader ever placed greater emphasis on national unity, yet if Barak negotiates a deal under these circumstances, it may well strain Israeli society to the breaking point. If he rejects Arafat's ultimatum, his role will be no less tragic: the prime minister who vowed to end the 100-year Arab-Israeli conflict will instead have proved that compromise with the Arab world, for now, is impossible.
When he was elected prime minister, Barak set out to finish the work Yitzhak Rabin began. And he knew that to do so, he had to learn from Rabin's mistakes. Crucially, he resolved not to repeat Rabin's disastrous taunting of his right-wing opponents; instead, Barak tried to empathize with their fears.Unlike Rabin, he seemed to understand that he couldn't make peace with only half the country behind him. Yet now he is doing precisely that, aiming for the most far-reaching deal in the country's history with barely a coalition. He failed because in one essential way he was too similar to Rabin to break from his mentor's mold: he too is a loner, convinced that only he is smart enough to be entrusted with war and peace. He refused to involve most of his Cabinet in the peace process, and now he is negotiating without its support. The leader who insisted that Israelis make peace among themselves before making peace with their neighbors couldn't even make peace with the ministers in his own government.
As Barak sat in parliament last Monday for a humiliating vote of no confidence just before flying to Washington, he wore a small, defiant smirk that said, I'll show you all what I can do. He survived the vote, but that bravado will not bring the Israeli prime minister the ultimate victory he craves. Indeed, it is the reason he has already failed.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land.