Barak’s Rude Awakening
It is time for Prime Minister Barak to do some house cleaning if he wants to restore his credibility and achieve peace with Syria and the Palestinians with security and dignity. Sadly, it took the killing of seven Israeli soldiers and large scale of violence across Lebanese borders to rudely awaken him to a reality he has chosen to ignore since becoming prime minister ten months ago.
Barak's government and his own conduct of domestic and foreign policy have been riddled with ambiguities, internal discord, animosities (especially between Meretz and Shas) and lack of a unity of purpose from the start. Barak relied on his wits to overcome difficulties or outsmart his opponents while failing to develop the necessary consensus to act on vital national issues such as withdrawal and peace. It is hardly surprising that three of his coalition partners–Shas, Israel Ba'Aliya, and the National Religious Party– deserted him and joined the opposition, voting for a bill that would require an absolute majority of eligible voters to approve a referendum on any peace deal with Syria. This is a significant slap in the face at a time critical to his efforts to renew negotiations with Syria.
Barak has failed to muster the courage to tell his people what it really takes to make peace with Syria. He has failed to deliver on many domestic promises he made concerning welfare and education. Moreover, Barak has failed to inspire his government to work cohesively for the good of the nation. He wasted precious time trying to outmaneuver his coalition partners to keep the government together. This resulted in paralysis of the government, abandonment of domestic concerns, a populace disappointed in his performance, frozen negotiations with Syria and the Palestinian Authority, intensified violence in southern Lebanon, and the Arab states' outcry following Israeli bombing of three Lebanese power plants. For Barak, time is of the essence. He must act now to save his reputation and above all his nation from unnecessary bloodshed, hardship and uncertainty.
First, Barak must immediately undertake some house cleaning, beginning with his own government. He must "make peace" with Shas, the third largest party with 17 Keneset members. Shas supports full withdrawal from the Golan and substantial territorial concessions in the West Bank provided its budgetary needs for education are met. Barak can certainly do without the National Religious Party (representing the settlers) who will oppose any substantial territorial concession. This party will only cause dissension and prevent the government from taking a firm position when the need to relocate settlers, especially from the West Bank arises. The non-ideological Israel Ba'Aliya Party, which has only four members in the parliament, must make a choice: either unequivocally support the government or join the opposition benches. Barak must lead a government that speaks in one voice, disciplined and united on the requisites of peace.
Second, Barak was given a national mandate by nearly two million voters to make normal peace with security. He is now obligated to deliver. Barak must tell the Israeli public the truth and psychologically prepare them for the inevitable requirement of full withdrawal from the Golan. As a former general, he knows better than anyone that only genuine peace, and not a piece of territory, regardless of its strategic importance, provides the ultimate security. Barak should say so openly, clearly and decisively. He must tell his people what is required for peace. He must also state clearly that Israel will not surrender an inch of territory without security arrangements and a normalization of relations that can withstand the test of time. Although recent polls suggest that a majority of Israelis support full withdrawal for peace, Barak still needs to undertake a massive public relations campaign to prepare his people for the national trauma that full withdrawal will inadvertently precipitate.
Third, since his election ten months ago and like his predecessors Rabin and Peres, Barak has continued to insist that the depth of withdrawal from the Golan will be equal to the depth of peace. Obviously, for tactical reasons, Barak has refused to concede the whole Golan before extracting substantial concessions from Syria, especially in the areas of security and normalization. But why did he pursue this dead-end strategy for more than 10 months only to concede, as he did recently, that past Israeli-Syrian negotiations conducted by Rabin and Peres were under the assumption of a full withdrawal?
With the Syrians, Barak must be more bold and decisive than he has ever been before. Offering full withdrawal is no longer a trump card…. it is a given. Barak must make it abundantly clear, however, that while he accepts this prerequisite for peace, Syria must also accept the prerequisite for regaining the Golan. While Barak must insist on iron clad security arrangements, he must also demonstrate sensitivity to Syria's national requirements to make peace. I was told time and again by high Syrian officials that, once Israel commits to a full withdrawal, there is no issue that cannot be settled to the mutual satisfaction of both sides. This can be achieved, they emphasize, as long as no traces of Israeli occupation are left behind, such as an early warning station.
Finally, Barak has promised to withdraw from southern Lebanon by mid-July. He should not treat that date like the other deadlines that were never met such as February 15, at which time an Israeli-Palestinian framework for peace was to have been concluded. It is certainly preferable to conclude peace with Syria and Lebanon simultaneously by mid-July. Otherwise, Barak should proceed with the evacuation of southern Lebanon, especially since his cabinet unanimously endorsed the plan. This will not only restore his credibility, but more importantly, will close a sad chapter in Israel's long and painful struggle for peace.