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Ehud Barak.(Photo by: Ahikam Seri/Bloomberg)
Above the Fray: Time for Barak to Depart
If talks fail, a political reconfiguration could reverse the trend of isolation, placing the peace process on track.
The government must still approve the proposed agreement to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank in exchange for a US offer of $3 billion worth of military hardware, including stealth fighters. If Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu succeeds in obtaining cabinet approval, the parties will have 90 days to focus primarily on reaching an agreement on borders. Only an agreement on borders would enable negotiations to proceed by delineating which of the settlements will be incorporated into Israel, and which would not. The resumption of construction would then be limited to those areas that are considered part of Israel.

The success or failure of the Obama administration’s peacemaking effort hinges on whether or not sufficient progress is made to induce the Palestinian and Israeli leadership to continue with the negotiations beyond the 90-day freeze.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that such an accord will be reached is slim. Any agreement would require major concessions on the part of both sides. However, it is unclear whether the current government can muster a three-month settlement freeze, albeit in exchange for a most compelling American offer, and then agree on a border that relinquishes 95 percent or more of the West Bank. Shas and Israel Beiteinu will object, as will rightwing rebels within the Likud who are appealing to Shas to oppose rather than abstain from the cabinet vote. Shas has stated that it will only abstain if it obtains a letter from the US ensuring that construction can resume in Jerusalem, and that the freeze would not be renewed on the 91st day. With such coalition partners, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be optimistic about the prospects for genuine movement toward peace.

SHOULD SKEPTICS sadly prove to be correct and efforts to negotiate a border agreement fail, it is clear that the Labor Party, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, must leave the government in an effort to induce a reconfiguration of the political landscape. Barak has long since lost his luster. He may think of himself as Israel’s savior, but he is not. As long as Barak remains in this government, he serves as a fig leaf for a dead-end, right-wing coalition that ideologically opposes making the kind of far-reaching compromises necessary. Of course, Barak has stated that his presence in the government has kept the peace process alive. A failure to reach a border agreement would expose this fallacy. In fact, Barak has become a liability to the peace process.

A poll last week by Yediot Aharonot indicated that if elections were held today with Barak leading Labor, the party would lose eight seats, from the current 13 to a paltry and irrelevant five. However, if Avishay Braverman led the party, it would receive 14 seats, with Isaac Herzog, 17, and if Gabi Ashkenazi entered politics to lead Labor, it could obtain as many as 23.

In a letter from Barak to the Labor Party steering committee responding to the surge in calls for him to leave the government and emergence of challengers to his party leadership, he wrote, “It would be a tragic mistake to abandon the campaign for peace at this time and to lead Israel into a state of international isolation.” However, his continued presence in a government that is decidedly uncommitted to a two-state solution has and will continue to further that isolation.

If he leaves, Netanyahu would be left with a weak right-wing coalition with little military experience and even weaker diplomatic relations with the Americans. In this sense, Barak’s exit could be critical to ameliorating the political landscape and to eventually forming a government capable of delivering a peace agreement.

THE ONLY way to reverse the trend of isolation and to place the peace process on track would be to revamp the current governing coalition. This would require a strengthened core of moderate, capable leadership found in elements of the Likud, Kadima and Labor. Such new leadership could achieve a number of things that the current government is either not able or willing to undertake.

First, it could restore the US’s confidence in its relationship with Israel. The bad chemistry between Barack Obama and Netanyahu may not be reparable – especially following Netanyahu’s highly publicized meeting with the new Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, after which Cantor noted he would serve as a “check” against the administration. However, beyond Netanyahu’s own behavior, his partners’ efforts to oppose the president and his initiatives, let alone promote settlement projects, have significantly damaged confidence between Washington and Jerusalem. Its restoration would provide a new government with the necessary crutch to make concessions for a peace agreement. New leadership would also strengthen coordination with the US on a range of critical issues, including Lebanon, Iran and Hamas.

Second, a new government would restore some of the trust with the Palestinians and the leading Arab states. Very few Arab leaders believe the Netanyahu government is capable or willing to make required concessions for a two-state solution. This basic distrust cannot be mitigated without a new government that is not wed to the settlement movement. Without a marked change in the makeup of the government, it is less likely that states like Saudi Arabia would even consider taking steps to normalize relations. But a change could spur a change in Arab attitudes.

Third, a new government would give the international campaign to isolate Israel some respite, while relations with the EU member states could dramatically improve. Shas’s chokehold on progress in the current coalition exemplifies the dilemma. A limited settlement freeze cannot be pursued unless Shas abstains. Shas is led by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose regular outlandish remarks reached a new low recently when he stated in a sermon that non-Jews “were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the people of Israel.” Removing the significant influence he now wields would only help international relations.

Fourth, a new government could put the Palestinians – and the Arab states that support them – to the test by changing the growing international perception that Israel is the obstacle to peace. Who can blame those who say it does not want peace? Just last week Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters that he does not think Israel should pursue peace with Syria and he remains staunchly opposed to even a very brief settlement freeze. That Israel may only be able to pass this freeze with significant US incentives further underscores the perception that it is not interested in genuine peacemaking.

Finally, a revamped coalition could begin to prepare the public for the eventuality of a two-state solution. It must be disabused of the notion of the tie between national security and occupation of the Palestinian land. The current government has reinforced this notion. What is needed are honest and experienced leaders who can provide leadership in both the diplomatic and security realms, while laying the groundwork for a peace agreement that would ensure national security.

The choice to change the current government ultimately lies with Netanyahu. The catalyst for change, however, should be Barak. He must recognize that by resigning from the government – and his leadership of the Labor Party – he could set in motion a political realignment that could create a path toward the peace agreement that he purports to seek. He must be the first to place the national interest above his political ambition, and in turn force Netanyahu to follow his lead.
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