ehud barak 248.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Defense Minister Ehud Barak will once again play the role of the coalition's defense attorney on Monday when he meets US Special Envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell in New York in an effort to resolve the growing disagreement between Jerusalem and Washington on settlement construction.
Barak's meeting with Mitchell comes amid reports Israel will offer the US a three-month freeze on settlement construction. The idea, officials said Sunday, was to use the three months to renew peace talks with the Palestinians, who until now have refused to meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Another topic that will likely come up during the New York talks is the status of the illegal outposts, which Barak has refrained from evacuating.
Barak enjoys the position he has managed to craft for himself in the current government. The right-wing slant of the coalition appears to contradict the Labor Party ideology he once stood for, but that has been sidelined in exchange for political survival and his current position as defense minister.
As such, Barak gets to play the good guy in the Netanyahu government.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said two weeks ago that Netanyahu's speech at Bar-Ilan University on June 14 "ruins the chance for peace."
Not a problem. Barak, the defense attorney for the Netanyahu government, flew to Cairo a few days later to clear things up.
The Netanyahu-Mitchell meeting scheduled for last week in Paris was canceled. No problem. Barak will go to New York instead.
This is the same leader of the Labor Party who, as prime minister, offered Yasser Arafat a comprehensive peace deal in 2000 that included a withdrawal from almost the entire West Bank.
But then again, what Barak preaches, he doesn't necessarily practice. In May, following Netanyahu's meeting with President Barack Obama, Barak said he would not hesitate to order security personnel to forcibly evacuate the more than 20 illegal outposts.
Over a month has passed and he has yet to act on his threat. Keep in mind that this wasn't the first time Barak threatened to evacuate the outposts.
Barak will not be arriving in New York for his meeting with Mitchell empty-handed. Last Thursday, the IDF announced it was scaling back operations in four West Bank cities - Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho and Hebron - to allow the Palestinian Authority to consolidate its control of these areas. If the PA shows Israel it could effectively crack down on Hamas, the next step will be for Israel to transfer security responsibility over these areas to the PA.
The forces in these cities have undergone military training in Jordan, directed by US Security Coordinator to the region, and Mitchell's deputy, Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton. These forces are behind the recent crackdown on Hamas terrorist elements in Kalkilya, Hebron and Jenin.
While Israel claims the forces have been successful, the best proof was received last week when Damascus-based Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal said in a speech that Dayton was "building an oppressive authority over the heads of our people." Apparently, Hamas is feeling the pressure in the West Bank.
While all of this is important and fits well into Netanyahu's vision of a "bottom up" peace plan, the Obama administration is unlikely to cave in to Israel's demands on continued settlement expansion, according to veteran Israeli officials who have dealt with the Americans on such issues.
Netanyahu and Barak may feel that a three-month freeze is itself a major concession, considering the right-wing makeup of the current government, but this could turn out to be a self-defeating proposal. If Israel is willing to freeze construction for three months to restart talks with the Palestinians, Mitchell could ask Barak on Monday, then why not freeze construction for the entire duration of the talks?
Barak will have a tough time finding an answer.