Netanyahu announces early Israeli election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced early national elections.

In a news conference on Oct. 9, Netanyahu announced that elections for the 19th Knesset will be held a year early. Although a date has not yet been announced, it is expected the vote will be held in early 2013, most likely in February.

A February election will be four years since the last Knesset election. The Knesset will return on Oct. 15, after which the government likely will pass a resolution to dissolve.

Netanyahu held meetings last week and on Oct. 9 with the heads of the other parties in his government coalition to decide whether to work to pass the 2013 budget or go to early elections. If the government cannot agree on a budget, it is grounds to go to elections.

Going to elections without an approved budget means that the ministries will operate on the 2012 budget allocations. A new budget would have seen deep cuts in many ministries.

“The country has actually been in election mode for over six months, which is unhealthy and should be stopped as soon as possible,” opposition Labor Party head Shelly Yachimovich said.

“The public must remember that Netanyahu is going to elections in order to immediately afterward pass a brutal and difficult budget that will harm the life of almost every citizen in the country, except for the very wealthy,” she told reporters.

Team of Rivals

Stability and order, those are the pillars that enable a democratically elected politician to successfully pursue their agenda. And stability and order are exactly what Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, has guaranteed for himself and for his party by creating a new national unity government with his rivals.

This new national unity government should have come as no surprise.

The new coalition now controls 94 of 120 Knesset seats. Never before in the history of Israeli politics has the governing coalition been so broad, so strong and so stable. Kadima, Netanyahu’s rival party, under its recently ousted leader Tzippi Livni would not have entered into a coalition with Likud. Shaul Mofaz, the newly elected leader of Kadima, has done what Livni could not. He has, in his own words, ‘corrected a historic wrong.’

Mofaz knows that Kadima belonged in the coalition from the very beginning. In 2009, Israel’s last election, Kadima garnered twenty eight seats, the largest number of seats of any party – but they could not form a government. Likud, with twenty seven seats and Netanyahu at the helm, formed a government along with the Labor party which is ostensibly to the left of Kadima, the central party.

The newly elected head of Kadima is a perfect partner for the Likud leader. Shaul Mofaz is a hawk on issues of security. He served as defense minister under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and was a successful chief of staff of the IDF, Israel’s army. He is Iranian by birth, born in Teheran, to parents who came, originally, from Isfahan. His given name was Shahram Mofazzez Zadeh, a very ethnic sounding name Shaul Mofaz has the ring of a true Israeli name. Mofaz deeply understands Iranians, not just their language but also their mind set. He has a more liberal point of view than does Netanyahu on economics and social welfare. They are the perfect counter balance to each other.

Kadima is really a center- center/left party. And Likud is center center/right. The coalition they have formed is now strongly center based. It is so strongly center that even if a party or two on either side of the spectrum should decide to leave the coalition it will have no impact on the stability of the government.

This is not an insider baseball issue. The ramifications of this newly formed coalition in Israel will not affect only Israeli society. This broad unity government under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz has carte blanch on issues connected to security, Iran, and the Palestinians peace process issues of vital import to the greater region and to the West.

How and why? I’ll explain.

One of the most important messages this newly created coalition sends out is a message to Iran. Israel’s electorate and their ruling parties are now totally aligned on the issue of the dangers of Iran. Despite the recent and very public debate and critique about if, when or how to deal with Iran the only issue to be dealt with now is timing. The Israeli message to Iran is clear: your nuclear technology and capability threatens us, we will deal with it, we just have to decide when.

The Israeli government is now almost totally united on issues of security. That means that when the government decides to strike there will be no need to break ranks. Iran has to realize that now, more than ever before, Israel is poised to strike. And that is a frightening reality for the United States and by extension the greater Western world on the eve of a US presidential election.

Will this throw a wrench into the Obama presidential campaign and destroy his plan to use Iran as a lever to help win the election? People might ask what is the Obama plan on Iran and do they have one worked out and the answer is that they are still planning the plan. Now the Obama plan, whatever it may turn out to be, will have little impact. The Israelis have the plan, the means and the unity to proceed on their own.

The newly formed coalition government of Israel is also united on the peace process. That ball is now in the Palestinians’ court. It is the Palestinians who must decide to pursue peace or not to pursue peace.

Unlike the Americans, the Israelis have concluded that the Palestinians are not ready to move ahead. They have concluded that the Palestinians want far too much and do not want to compromise. So Israel is simply waiting. Of course, Israel realizes that the next generation of Palestinian leadership may be even less accommodating neighbors, but the Israelis have had enough of giving with no Palestinian follow through. Now, with no pressure from rival parties and with no need to capitulate to external pressure, Israel can comfortably adopt a wait and see policy vis a vis the Palestinians.

Internal domestic issues will still be confronted, debated and fought over in Israel—that will not change. And some parties may bolt from the Netanyahu/Mofaz coalition. But the coalition will remain strong. One thing is certain: Israel’s coalition and governing party is more stable now than it has been in years.

Likud moves to dissolve Knesset, eyes Sept. 4 election

The Likud Party, which leads the ruling coalition, has submitted a bill to dissolve the current Knesset and is pushing for new elections on Sept. 4.

The bill joins motions by the opposition Meretz and Labor parties. Kadima said in a statement that it will support any bill to move up the elections. The bills reportedly will be put to a vote on Monday.

Meanwhile, the Knesset’s legal adviser said Wednesday in a legal opinion that the expected dissolution of the Knesset next week would automatically extend the Tal Law, which exempts full-time yeshiva students from mandatory army service. In February, Israel’s Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional. It is set to expire in August.

The Knesset’s dissolution would automatically extend the Tal Law to at least three months into the new Knesset.

Netanyahu Made an Offer Barak Couldn’t Refuse


There is no debate over two of the achievements of the Labor-Likud coalition agreement that was initialed on Tuesday morning: It was reached after negotiations unprecedented in their brevity – taking less than 24 hours – and it grants Labor a scandalous package of positions for its mere 13 Knesset seats, almost out of generosity. The deal gives the party five cabinet posts, including two of the most senior – Defense Minister and Trade and Industry Minister – and another two deputy ministerial positions.

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s package of temptation for Labor was so bountiful that it is not clear whether the party will have enough people to man all the positions. Labor chairman Ehud Barak’s camp, as of Tuesday morning, consisted of Ministers Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Shalom Simhon, Isaac Herzog and deputy ministers Matan Vilnai and Orit Noked. Vilnai will be upgraded to minister without portfolio and Noked will serve as a deputy minister.  Click here to read the rest of the article on

Israel’s Labor Party Votes to Join Government Coalition

JERUSALEM (JTA)—The Labor Party voted to join the Likud-led coalition government, virtually guaranteeing that Benjamin Netanyahu will be Israel’s next prime minister.

Labor chief Ehud Barak’s bid to join Netanyahu’s coalition came down to a contentious vote Tuesday night by the party’s central committee, with 680 in favor of joining and 570 against.

With Labor behind him, Netanyahu now has the 60-plus Knesset majority necessary to form a government and become prime minister. His other coalition partners include the Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties.

Barak argued that Labor joining the Likud-led coalition was best for the country and would not provide cover for a right-wing agenda.

“I am not afraid of Benjamin Netanyahu. We won’t be anyone’s fig leaf or anyone’s third wheel,” Barak told the central committee. “We will act as an opposing force that will ensure there will not be a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that looks after the State of Israel.”

Audience members who disagreed booed Barak.

“We would be entering this government as a third wheel, as a wagging tail, not more than that,”  Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich said before the vote. “There is no shame in sitting in the opposition. On the contrary, it’s an honor.”

Earlier in the day, Barak and Netanyahu came together on a draft agreement stipulating that in exchange for Labor’s joining the coalition, the Israeli government would commit toward working for achieve regional peace, affirm its commitment to all agreements signed by previous Israeli governments, allow Barak to continue on as defense minister and be a full partner in the diplomatic process, and enforce the law on illegal outposts, according to media reports.

Briefs: Peace process proceeeds, says Livni; Bush waives Palestinian aid rules

Livni Says Peace Process Will Move Forward

Tzipi Livni said the peace process will move forward and that Israel will be able to face challenges better with a stable government.

The Israeli prime minister-designate, who is working to form a new government coalition, made her first national policy address Sunday at the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s conference on policy and strategy.

“Israel wishes to arrive at peace with all of her neighbors — the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon and the Arab nations,” Livni said. “We have proven our willingness not only by embarking on diplomatic processes but by evacuating Gaza.”

She added: “The process should continue, and we should press ahead and conduct ourselves correctly. Don’t let incidental dates or political changes get in the way of a responsible process.”

Livni said the government must achieve both financial and political stability. She took a swipe at other political parties that are making budgetary demands in order to agree to join the coalition.

“We must maintain financial stability, and in order to safeguard [the economy], we must also preserve the political balance; we must achieve political stability quickly,” Livni stressed. “Therefore, we are in need of a government that will maintain the equilibrium, a government that can transcend partisan demands.”

Earlier at the same conference, Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said that Israel had failed to live up to the commitments it made at the Annapolis peace summit in 2007.

“We believed in what was promised — that this year would be different,” he said. “But we are already in October, and we are losing hope that by the end of the year we will see the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and the end of the occupation.”

Al-Maliki warned that the failure to come to a peace agreement would lead to the domination of Hamas and a return to violence.

Bush Waives Palestinian Aid Restrictions

President Bush waived restrictions on direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

“I hereby certify that it is important to the national security interests of the United States to waive” restrictions on direct funding for the Palestinian Authority, Bush wrote in a message Monday to the State Department.

The waiver allows Bush to transfer as much as $75 million to the Palestinian Authority. Such direct funding is otherwise subject to conditions, including proof that the Palestinian Authority has disarmed terrorists and ended incitement.

Bush is making an end-of-presidency push for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Most funding for the Palestinians in recent years has been directed through nongovernmental organizations, partly to avoid the taint of corruption and terrorism that had attached itself to the Palestinian Authority.

The Bush administration has praised the new P.A. leadership for reforms and said it needs the money in part to meet challenges from Islamist extremists.

Obama Campaign Returns Gazans’ Cash

The Obama campaign returned $33,000 to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who purchased a large quantity of campaign T-shirts.

The revelation arises out of a Republican request to the Federal Election Commission to investigate thousands of small donations to the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Republicans claim that some of the donors are from overseas, which is illegal.

Reporting the request Monday, the Washington Post noted that Newsweek, its sister publication, reported that two Palestinian brothers had paid $33,000 for a bulk order of T-shirts. Such purchases from online stores are counted as donations.

The campaign returned the money and said its staff had mistaken the brothers’ address abbreviation for Gaza, “Ga.,” as the U.S. state of Georgia.

Papers Reveal Israel’s Confusion in ’73 War

Top Israeli army officials did not know what was happening in the field during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, according to newly declassified documents. Israel’s Defense Ministry declassified documents Tuesday relating to the investigation of failures of the war.

The deliberations of the Agranat Committee, which was established to investigate the conduct of the military and the government during the war, including testimony of senior officers such as Ariel Sharon and Moshe Dayan, were made public nearly 35 years to the day after the outbreak of the war.

Former Prime Minister Sharon, who commanded the 53rd Division during the war, told the committee at the time that the higher command “had no idea of what was happening on the ground,” according to a report in the newspaper, Ha’aretz. Sharon also discussed his plan to cross the Suez Canal, which led to Israel’s victory.

Dayan’s testimony was reminiscent of issues that arose following the 2006 Second Lebanon War, including not calling up reservists right away and not anticipating a full-scale war.

U.S. Could Waive Israeli Visa Requirement

The United States could soon waive the need for an entry visa by Israelis. In a meeting in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, Israel Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit discussed waiving the need for a visa for Israelis to visit the United States, the newspaper, Yediot Achronot, reported Oct. 3.

The change in policy would begin to be formulated later this month. To qualify, Israel would have to switch from a paper to a biometric passport system.

Approximately 313,000 Israelis have traveled to the United States so far this year. The current process for obtaining an entry visa requires a fee, embassy interview and a long wait.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Olmert submits resignation, promises to help Livni

JERUSALEM (JTA)—Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has submitted his letter of resignation to President Shimon Peres

Olmert visited the president’s official residence in Jerusalem Sunday evening to deliver the letter.

“This is not an easy decision, and I am convinced that this is a difficult evening for him,” Peres said following the meeting. “I wish to take this opportunity to thank the prime minister for his service to the people and the state over the course of many years of public activities: as the mayor of Jerusalem, as a minister in the government and as the prime minister of Israel.”

Peres will meet with the heads of the party factions and give one of them, most likely Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, up to 42 days to form a new coalition government. He was scheduled to meet Sunday night with the Kadima Party, which is led by Livni after her narrow primary victory last week.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday morning, Olmert told his Cabinet that he would resign.

“I must say that this was not an easy or simple decision,” he told the Cabinet. “I think that I have acted properly and responsibly, as I promised the Israeli public from the beginning.”

Olmert congratulated Livni and said he would help her to form a coalition government. Livni has said she plans to form a new government by the start of the winter session on Oct. 27.

Olmert will remain the head of a caretaker government until a new coalition is formed or until after new general elections if agreement on a coalition government cannot be reached.


Livni and Olmert at Cabinet meeting Sunday (screen grab from Israel Channel 2 News)

AUDIO: Iranian American Jews — Knesset Member Ophir Pines-Paz

Exclusive interviews with Israeli Knesset Member Ophir Pines-Paz and Iranian Jewish philanthropist Parviz Nazarian. Topic: changing Israel’s form of government

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Sharon’s Election Brings Full Agenda

In the wake of the tragic death of Israeli astronaut Ilan
Ramon on the Space Shuttle Columbia, there was Ariel Sharon, the prime minister and prime healer, providing solace on national television.
Just five days earlier, Sharon had won a stunning election victory, and it is
clear that here is a man who had forged a unique bond with the Israeli people
in their time of unrelenting sorrow.

But comfort will not be enough. Sharon must begin to address
his growing problems — and soon — or his spectacular victory may be

The Coalition. One place where the election made Sharon’s
task easier is the need to build a coalition. Beforehand, the pundits all
predicted that he would have three choices: a right-wing government, a secular
national unity coalition with Labor and Shinui or a national unity government
with Labor and the religious parties as existed before November.

These three options still exist, but Sharon did better than
expected; the far right and the left did worse, freeing Sharon from an
unpalatable choice made worse by his own refusal to accept the dictates of the
far right and Labor’s refusal to join, except perhaps under the dire pressures
of a war with Iraq.

Fortunately for Sharon, the results permit him another two
critical options: he can begin with a nucleus of his own Likud, the National
Religious Party (NRP) and Yisrael B’Aliyah — 46 in all — and he may be able to
add the One Nation worker’s party — three more to 49.

To get above 61, he can go with the ultrasecular and
spectacularly successful Shinui (15), which has refused generally to align with
religious parties, but would accept NRP for a total of 64 seats. Or Sharon
could go with the two other religious parties: Shas (11) and UTJ (five) for a
total of 65.

Either a basically secular or the religious parties-included
coalition produces a moderate conservative government with which Sharon can
live. Both have problems: the first might alienate Likud’s traditional
religious party alliance; the second might turn off the growing number of
Israelis disgusted with the largesse distributed to religious institutions and
individuals in tough times.

However, both may be workable and stable, because Sharon
could always threaten to turn to an alternate alliance if the parties’ demands
became too great.

The Political System. The good news begins to dissipate when
one considers that Sharon emerged from the campaign — one should perhaps better
say escaped — with a cloud surrounding him over a series of scandals engulfing
both his party and his family. In this sense, his reelection was more Nixon in
1972 than Reagan in 1984.

If the attorney general’s office issues indictments, and absent
the blunders by liberal leakers, columnists and judges that helped save Sharon
during the campaign, the prime minister could be in big trouble.

Moreover, the fractured Knesset continues as a devastating
obstacle to political stability. A country with its third election in less than
four years confronted the worst turnout in its history (68.5 percent) and a
continued multitude of political parties eroding any prime minister’s capacity
to pursue genuine achievements on most issues.

On the one hand, the abandonment of the direct election of
the prime minister, designed to save the two major parties from further decline
(because voters tended to select a Likud or Labor prime minister and a smaller
party for the Knesset) did achieve some limited results. Between them, Likud
and Labor received 57 seats this time compared to 45 in 1999. And the
just-elected Knesset has 13 parties, which began with 15 parties but after
splits and dissolutions ended with 19.

But the differences between the parties, their competing
demands and the difficulty of forming a coalition and keeping it — with all
Sharon’s current assets — suggests what many Israelis think: it won’t be long
before they’ll be going to the polls again.

Democracy is grand, but like ice cream, too much isn’t right
either, and no country can function efficiently if government has to stop for
months every year or two to campaign, elect and form governments.

The Economy. Sharon’s first term was disastrous for the
economy, which continues its free- fall. The gross domestic product is actually
down. The tourism industry has collapsed. Unemployment (now more than 10
percent), defense spending, inflation and emigration are up. Immigration and
foreign investment are down.

No Israeli has been unaffected by the downturn, and Sharon
does not seem to have a clue how to stem the tide, other than to gain new loan
guarantees from the United States that are absolutely critical. Israel needs a
new economic plan, but whatever coalition is formed is unlikely to produce one.

The Labor Party has the most able candidates — at least on
paper — for dealing with this issue, but is reluctant to have Sharon get the
credit, and, in any case, failed to produce viable ideas or a concerted
argument on the question in the campaign. If Sharon does not address this issue
effectively soon, it could easily overcome his other concerns. Some will say it

Security. Saving the worst for last and overshadowing all
issues today is the question of what to do to stem the violence. During Sharon’s
first term, more Israelis died as a result of terrorism than during the years
of any other previous prime minister, and he was only in office less than two

One conclusion that more and more Israelis came to assume
was that true security could not be achieved by military force alone. And
Sharon seemed to have no idea how to solve the issue diplomatically, or if he
did, it was to await the next election.

However, the election is now over. He may get a temporary
reprieve from the need to confront the next crisis, the war in Iraq, which may
have long-term security benefits for Israel, but in the short term, could
involve a direct attack on Israeli territory. Though Saddam on paper is weaker
than in the last war, no one can be certain what he is actually capable of
doing and whether he will do it.

But the war will end, and with it will come the probable
confrontation with worldwide pressure for doing something about the continuing
Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. During Sharon’s first term, relations with the
Arab states and the Europeans deteriorated. Sharon begins his term with better
relations with the United States than ever, but he is also more dependent on
American preferences than any of his predecessors.

There are straws in the wind that hint at possible new
opportunities. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made a dramatic call to Sharon
after the victory (his first) and suggested a meeting soon (another first).

Egypt is also newly vigorous in trying to gain agreement
among the Palestinians for a cease-fire. Even Arafat offered to meet with
Sharon in an act either of farcical duplicity or as a sign of growing
Palestinian desperation. This was followed by a Palestinian offer for the first
time since the intifada began for cease-fire talks — without preconditions, no

Sharon himself has hinted at new ideas that would be
consistent with the roadmap endorsed by the Quartet (the United States,
European Union, United Nations and Russia). Sharon, after all, has refused to
ally with the far right over issues of a possible renewal of the peace process
and the objective of a Palestinian state. And there must be some reason he is
ready to be so generous to the Labor Party as a lure for its joining him. 

Yet, Sharon’s actions can all be explained by his desire to
maintain a strong relationship with the United States, and even moderate
concessions would require a major turnaround. The Likud primaries produced
scandals, but also a right turn within the party, further limiting Sharon’s
flexibility, which will be constrained further if the scandals become more
serious. And the last two years have proved that there is always an excuse for
doing nothing.

So there remain two things the election has not changed: The
other Arab states need to become more active in constraining and guiding the
Palestinians and in taking confidence-building measures toward Israel, and the
United States must become more active in pushing the Israelis and Palestinians
from confrontation toward limited conciliation.

There are signs of very tentative movement by the Arabs. But
there are no signs under the current pressures of even tentative diplomatic
activity by the Bush administration.

Likud governments are often underestimated: They have
brought a peace treaty with Egypt under Menachem Begin, the critical Madrid
Conference under Yitzhak Shamir and the successful Wye Conference under
Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter two led Labor governments to try to move further
under Yitzhak Rabin in Oslo and the Jordan-Israel peace treaty and under Ehud
Barak at Camp David.

Sharon is the only Likud prime minister who does not have a
diplomatic accomplishment on his record. Perhaps the key question of his second
term is whether he can end the intifada and begin a process of resuscitating
the Israeli people’s tattered well-being.  

Steven L. Spiegel is associate director of the Burkle Center for International Relations and professor of political science at UCLA. He is also a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum and advises the Center for Israel Studies at the University of Judaism.

Unlikely Bedfellows

As the deadline draws ever closer for Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak to present his government for Knesset approval, his coalition negotiations are taking some surprising turns.

In the latest twist, Barak has resumed talks with a potential partner that, for several weeks now, has appeared destined to be left out in the political cold — the Likud Party. Barak held a series of private discussions this week with Likud’s acting chairman, outgoing Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who was Barak’s army mentor years ago.

The talks with Sharon came after Barak — who has until July 8 to present his government to the Knesset — encountered trouble wooing the fervently Orthodox Shas Party into the government he is forming.

Sharon sounded a determinedly hopeful note Tuesday, telling reporters that he believed there could be “real partnership” in policy-making between Barak and himself.

But other Likud figures were more circumspect, and outside observers cautioned against any premature conclusion that a deal was in the offing.

Officials with the leftist Meretz Party, previously signaling that they were ready to sign a coalition agreement with Barak, are now pulling back, not wishing to be a “fifth wheel” — as party leader Yossi Sarid put it — in a Barak government that includes Sharon.

The other four wheels would “all be pulling in different directions,” Sarid said sourly.

What was Barak’s sudden sea change all about? Why, after close to a month of silence between them, are Barak’s One Israel bloc and the Likud talking again? It had seemed, after all, that both sides were reconciled to the imminent formation of a Barak-led government without Likud.

If Barak were more of a wheeler-dealer, and less of a straight-shooting military type, the answer would be self-apparent. He was bringing Likud back into the loop, one would naturally assume, in order to bring pressure to bear on his other, likelier coalition partners — chief among them Shas. But this is unlikely. During the past several weeks of slow, frustrating and largely empty negotiations, even Barak’s critics have had to admit that he is not a run-of-the-mill, jaded political operator, not one to make high-profile overtures just for the psychological or tactical impact they may have on a third party.

If Barak is talking with Sharon, say those who know him, he means what he says. He intends to make Likud a serious offer, they say, whether or not he eventually can bring Shas around and create around the One Israel-Shas-Meretz axis a numerically impressive coalition that would include some 77 of the Knesset’s 120 legislators.

Why, specifically, is Barak wooing Sharon? Barak’s pledge after the May 17 election to be “everyone’s prime minister” still resounds, at least in his own ears. He genuinely wants the broadest-based government possible, believing that, given the dimensions of his own victory in the race for prime minister, his voice in all matters of high policy will not effectively be challenged.

And on the issues of peace policy, Barak believes that a broad-based government will make the best deals with Syria and the Palestinians and will carry any agreements easily through the national referendums he has promised to hold before each of those treaties is ratified.

But what of Sharon? What does he hope to gain? In Sarid’s mind, at any rate, Sharon’s intentions can only spell mischief.

For One Israel peaceniks, too, Sharon’s participation in the government spells ongoing attempts to undermine, derail or at least slow the peace process.

But there may be another reading, and, if the One Israel-Likud talks move forward positively, Barak will be trying to persuade his key supporters that it is tenable — despite Sharon’s long record as a hard-liner and an opponent of the Oslo peace process.

Sharon, by this theory, has come to terms with Barak’s victory. The course of the coalition negotiations, though slow and stuttering, is leading inexorably to the creation of a government committed to bringing Oslo to full fruition and to signing a land-for-peace deal with the Syrians that would include an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Barak’s red-carpet reception earlier this month for Syrian President Hafez Assad’s biographer, British journalist Patrick Seale, was a transparent signal — and intended as such — that the new government is ready to resume serious negotiations with Damascus.

All this being the case, Sharon’s position now is that it is better for Likud to be in the government — where it can affect policy-making as much as it can — rather than watch, impotent and frustrated, from the sidelines.

The third alternative — toppling Barak — simply does not exist and will not be available during the next crucial year or two.

Cynics within and outside Likud will link this pragmatic attitude on the part of Sharon to his candidacy in the Likud leadership primaries, due to be held in the fall. As a senior minister in the new government, Sharon would undoubtedly have the advantage over his main rival, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.

This is especially the case in view of Olmert’s central campaign theme: that he is the party’s moderate candidate for the future, while Sharon is the unreconstructed hard-liner.

But such internal party considerations aside, Sharon may well want to make a contribution during the process of shaping the final borders of the state.

At 71, and with a long trail of controversy behind him, Sharon, similar to Moshe Dayan a generation ago, may want to end his career as a peacemaker. A seat in the Barak Cabinet, he may feel, is the only practical way to achieve that.

Meanwhile, the talks between Barak’s One Israel negotiators and Shas seemed to hit a major snag Monday evening, when Shas officials dug their in heels over a demand that their party retain the Interior Ministry — a stance opposed with equal firmness by One Israel.

Some Shas insiders are charging that Aryeh Deri, forced to resign last week as Shas’ political leader, is still active behind the scenes, jacking up the party’s negotiating demands in order to foil an evolving coalition agreement with One Israel.

Dealing With the ‘Enemy’

If Barak is to succeed, he needs to choose between two unlikely allies, Shas or Likud

By Eric Silver, Mideast Correspondent

Aryeh Deri, the corrupt but charismatic head of Shas, blinked first. On Tuesday, one month after Ehud Barak’s landslide victory, Deri resigned all leadership positions in the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party — opening the way for Barak to form the broad, peacemaking coalition that has been his aim from the start.

Labor’s prime minister-elect had insisted that Shas, Israel’s third-largest party, with 17 Knesset seats, could come on board only if Deri, sentenced to four years in prison for bribe-taking, stepped down. Shas’ inclusion would make it easier for two other religious groups, the National Religious Party and United Torah Judaism, to come on board.

This would give Barak a shield against right-wing smears that suggest he does not have a “Jewish majority” for concessions to the Palestinians and the Syrians. But the new prime minister is still stuck with squaring the circle. Israelis, who worry about a vacuum of power, will have to live with the lame-duck Netanyahu regime awhile longer.

Barak was elected by a liberal, largely secular, majority that believed him when he promised a “change” in the way Israel is governed, a chance for peace and a break with the extortion of the religious parties.

He knows he will pay a heavy price next time round if he disappoints his constituency. Yet he has said repeatedly that he wants to be “everybody’s prime minister.” He wants to bring the boys home from Lebanon; he wants to complete the circle of peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors.

If he is to succeed without enduring the barrage of Jewish incitement that culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, he needs partners from the “enemy camp.” They, for their part, want in. They have become accustomed to the spoils of office. The question is how much they will get in return.

Israel’s two-tier electoral system, which left Labor with only 26 seats and Likud with a demoralizing 19, means that the religious parties still have leverage. Barak, a celebrated puzzle addict, will have to give them just enough — without betraying his own voters. In particular, he has to convince the left-liberal Meretz, his most loyal ally, that he remains committed to a rational, outward-looking, pluralistic society.

The Meretz leader, Yossi Sarid, was adamant that they would not serve alongside Shas, but under pressure from Barak and President Ezer Weizman, he softened his stand. Meretz would bite the Shas bullet, once Deri resigned and demonstrated over an unspecified probationary period that he was no longer pulling the strings.

Deri finally went because Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recognized that Barak was not Bibi Netanyahu. The Labor champion had his own imperatives, and the patience to sit it out, if necessary to the end of the 45 days allowed by law to present his government.

Rabbi Yosef, conservative on social issues but flexible on peace, may also have been swayed by the stench of scandal still swirling around his protégé. The police this week launched an inquiry into a missing $9 million donation to Jerusalem’s Itri yeshiva, whose American-born head, Rabbi Mordechai Elifant, submitted an affidavit that alleged the money had been stolen. Deri offered his services as a mediator, if Rabbi Elifant withdrew the complaint.

According to Israeli media reports, it is suspected that the donation was really an illegal contribution, either to Shas’ election campaign or to pay Deri’s lawyers’ bills. Police are checking whether it was being laundered without Elifant’s knowledge by the yeshiva’s chief fund-raiser, Rabbi Haim Weiss, who just happens to be Deri’s next-door neighbor.

To add to Deri’s woes, New York City’s police chief, Howard Safir, announced during a visit to Israel this week that he was reopening an investigation into a 1991 road accident which killed a key prosecution witness in the Deri corruption case.

The victim was Esther Werderber, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor, who with her late husband had unofficially adopted Deri’s orphaned wife, Yaffa, and given her a dowry. The Deris claimed that the purchase money for their luxurious Jerusalem penthouse came from Mrs. Werderber. The New York widow denied any such gift. The Jerusalem district court concluded that the $155,000 was stolen from the Israeli taxpayer.

Before she could testify, Mrs. Werderber was hit while crossing the road. The driver was an ex-Israeli, who, according to Israeli police investigators, worked out of a New York garage owned by Moshe Reich, a friend of Deri’s. Chief Safir said this week that he could not rule out murder. With potential allies like this, it may not seem surprising that Barak has begun to negotiate again with Arik Sharon and the Likud Party.

Jockeying for Position

The luncheon menu reflected the confusion this week at the Washington policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group better known as AIPAC. The main course was hummus, falafel and baba ganoush, a Mediterranean medley that seemed to symbolize Israel’s integration into a New Middle East. Dessert, however, was hamantaschen — the Purim pastry that recalls Israel’s eternal battles against sworn enemies.

AIPAC holds a national conference in Washington every spring to flex its muscles and trumpet its closeness to the Israeli government. This year, it had the misfortune of scheduling the meeting for the very week when, as it happened, Israel wouldn’t have a government to speak of. The old government had just been defeated. The new one hadn’t been installed. Coalition negotiations were hot and heavy, and no Israeli politicians wanted to be away. And, so, instead of hearing at lunch from the two leading Knesset members invited to discuss the recent elections, delegates got to watch three Israeli spinmeisters blather via satellite. The hall was half-empty. Or half-full.

Ehud Barak’s unexpectedly decisive victory over Binyamin Netanyahu seems to have just about everyone disoriented and groping. Some folks are scared stiff and shouldn’t be. Others are floating on air when they should be sweating. Everywhere you go, people say they’re delighted. Suddenly, it turns out nobody liked Netanyahu very much. They just hid it well.

At the watering holes where the East Coast Jewish power elite gathers to meet and greet, there’s more jockeying for position these days than at the Kentucky Derby. Last Sunday, 500 guests turned up at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to toast Jordan’s young King Abdullah, at a reception hosted by Slimfast mogul S. Daniel Abraham and his dovish Center for Middle East Peace. A week earlier, barely 150 RSVP’s had come in. Once Israel’s ballots were counted, the guest list ballooned, as Likud supporters scrambled to be seen as friends of peace.

In conversations among Jewish liberals, the mood is one of giddy elation, but it’s often laced with anxiety. As Barak’s coalition plans unfold, reports from Israel suggest he intends to form a broad coalition with either Likud or Shas, the Sephardic fervently Orthodox party. Shas would support the peace process, but block progress toward religious freedom and pluralism. The Likud is far more open to civil liberties and pluralism, but might slow peace talks to a crawl. Suddenly, Peace Now types are eyeing Reform rabbis suspiciously, wondering who’s going to lose out to whom as they wait for Barak to make his move.

If most Reform rabbis aren’t eyeballing back, it’s only because most of them don’t yet know what’s going to hit them. Almost unanimously this week, Reform leaders were confidently citing Barak’s frequent statements in favor of religious freedom and pluralism as evidence that he would fight their fight.

That’s not how it looks to Israelis. “I’m extremely happy with his election, but I would be very surprised if he pushes pluralism,” said Rabbi Naamah Kelman, a Reform Jewish educator in Jerusalem. “It just isn’t a consensus position in Israel.”

“Barak is committed to religious freedom,” said a Barak aide, “but that’s not the same thing as what Americans mean by religious pluralism. He’s going to fight for issues that affect Israelis. Whether Reform rabbis can perform conversions affects people in Cleveland. I don’t think most Americans understand that.”

On Capitol Hill, where Netanyahu used to be greeted with cheers, “people are very positive” about Barak’s election, says Rep. Peter Deutsch, a Jewish Democrat from Florida. “The prime minister-elect has said all the right things, from the moment he was elected. It’s a very exciting time.”

Of course, you might say it’s easy for a Democrat to embrace the leader of a peace-and-social-democracy party. But what do Republicans make of him?

Why, no problem. “I don’t think there will be any difference in support for Israel,” says Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla. “I’ve been in Congress 18 years, and I’ve supported Israel right along regardless of the administration over there. We want to do what’s right.”

In fact, it now appears nobody in either party ever liked Netanyahu that much. “The majority of Republicans want to see the peace process move forward,” says Rep. Howard Berman, a California Democrat who’s a leader of pro-Israel legislative activity. “Nobody in Congress was ideologically committed to the Likud approach except Newt Gingrich, and he’s gone.”

Well, not entirely gone. Gingrich was a featured speaker at this year’s AIPAC conference. He delivered an inspirational talk to a private gathering of the lobby’s biggest donors. His message was the same one he’s delivered at AIPAC gatherings for years, usually to wild applause: that the world is “still a dangerous place” and the good guys should never let their guard down. Which is, come to think of it, Netanyahu’s message.

The lobby claims to be nonpartisan when it comes to Israeli politics. AIPAC leaders say they’re insulted by the charges from Barak aides that they’re “biased” in favor of Likud. “There’s just so much misinformation,” said AIPAC executive committee member Bernice Manocherian of New York. “We support the U.S.-Israel relationship, no matter who is in power.”

If AIPAC folks sound particularly touchy on the subject, it’s because their relationship with Israel’s new government is off to a bad start. Aides to Barak have let it be known that the prime minister-elect considers the lobby “biased” toward Likud. Others have said it before. But now it’s coming from Israel’s incoming prime minister. AIPAC needs the Israeli government behind it. That’s the whole point of being AIPAC.

Barak’s refusal to appear before the conference — even via satellite, even for a five-minute taped message — was a stinging rebuke. In the end, AIPACers took some comfort in a warm, last-minute letter from Barak that was read to the delegates, saying he looked forward to “enhancing the cooperation with you and with the entire American Jewish community.”

Barak’s aides warn against reading too much into the flap. The snub was intentional, and Barak does consider AIPAC biased. But now that he’s made his point, he has no intention of carrying a grudge into office. He’s convinced that he can work fine with AIPAC. His tent is a big tent.

Big enough for everyone he thinks he needs, anyway..

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

Is There Room for Shas in Barak’s Tent?

During the wild victory party in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Election Night, a chant went up in the crowd: “Just not Shas!” Ehud Barak heard the same chant when he spoke early this week to a gathering of campaign activists. A booth with a fax machine in Kikar Rabin has already sent more than 20,000 faxes to Barak from his supporters, who urge him not to invite the meteoric Sephardic fervently Orthodox party into his governing coalition. Thousands of e-mails have been sent to Barak with the same message.

On Monday, when Barak’s coalition negotiating team sat down for preliminary talks with Shas’ people in a Herzliya hotel, a hang glider flew over with a sign that read, “Just not Shas.”

Yet Barak’s representatives say the incoming prime minister wants the party in the government — if it will agree to a set of strict conditions. Despite Shas’ popular image as the rising threat to Israeli democracy, there is a large body of opinion among the secular left-wing camp — including author Amos Oz — that favors including Shas in the next government.

Having won 17 Knesset seats (out of 120) in the election, Shas is now one of Israel’s three big parties, behind Barak’s One Israel (26 seats) and just behind Likud (19 seats). The left-wing Meretz and Shinui parties say they will not sit in a government with Shas (or with the Ashkenazic fervently Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism). On a recent TV talk show, Meretz Knesset Member Amnon Rubinstein was explaining that Shas had placed itself beyond the pale by attacking the justice system and by lionizing its party leader, Arye Deri, after he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison for accepting bribes.

Labor Knesset Member Dalia Itsic replied: “Anybody who wants Shas to get 34 seats in the next election should keep them out of the government.”

In the audience, Shas activist Haim Barzilai chimed in: “Keep us out of the government and we won’t get 34 seats next time; we’ll get 40.”

In the pro-Barak camp, there is no love lost for Shas. The dispute is over tactics — whether Shas is more dangerous inside the tent or outside.

Author Sami Michael, a Barak and Meretz supporter, said that if Shas is kept out, “it will turn them into a kind of nonviolent Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad. Shas supporters are among the poorest and least educated Israelis, living in poor peripheral towns and urban slums. The anger and alienation they already feel will deepen if they feel they are deliberately being shunted aside.” Such a large constituency — 430,000 voters — cannot be disregarded, say those in favor of taking Shas in.

Another key argument for bringing in Shas is that the party is relatively dovish and will be an important political ally when it comes time for difficult concessions to the Palestinians or Syrians. “If it comes down to a choice between bringing in Shas, or bringing in the Likud and the National Religious Party, I would prefer Shas,” said Michael.

Hannah Kim, a columnist for Ha’aretz newspaper, disputed both these popular arguments. Shas thrives on feelings of alienation and has no interest in easing them, Kim wrote. “From the moment of its founding [in the early 1980s], Shas has taken part in every government coalition, but the party has nonetheless increased its constituents’ sense of alienation from the state…while, at the same time, creating a false image of a persecuted and unrecognized party.” She also disputed the claim that Shas was an ally of the peace process, noting that the party abstained in the Knesset vote on the Oslo accord and voted against the Oslo II accord.

Opponents of bringing Shas into the government say this would “dry up” the party’s funding sources for its vast educational and social services network. “Shas is a welfare state within a welfare state,” said Dr. Yossi Dahan, a researcher at the Adva Center, a progressive social think tank. Shas’ El Hama’ayan (To the Wellspring) school system, which offers cheap, all-day classes, including free bus transport and meals, is a powerful draw to Israel’s Sephardic poor. The system is almost wholly funded by the government. If Shas lost its leverage within the government, El Hama’ayan’s strength would be reduced drastically, Dahan said. (Dahan, however, favors Shas’ inclusion in the government for essentially the same reasons cited by Michael.)

Barak’s key demand of Shas is that Deri withdraw from the leadership of the party — not just in word, but in deed. Asked if Shas would agree to this, Barzilai replied, “Shas without Deri is like One Israel without Meretz and Shinui.”

Other conditions are that Shas give up the Interior Ministry; show respect for the rule of law; and run its various institutions openly, not in secret.

The implications of these demands are that Shas stop haranguing the courts, prosecutors and police; and that it shut down its approximately 40 pirate radio stations, some of which were openly calling for ballot stuffing on Election Day. Many leaders of One Israel have also insisted that Shas integrate El Hama’ayan into the public school system. An official close to Barak has said that if Shas agrees to these demands and carries them out, “then it won’t be Shas anymore.”

If Barak gives Shas substantial power in the government without first clipping its wings, he will alienate not only many of his core supporters but also his newest political ally — the Russian immigrants, more than 55 percent of whom voted for Barak, mainly because Netanyahu had grown too close to Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Yet after posting such astonishing gains in the election, Shas is not in the mood to have its wings clipped. If it comes into the government, it will come in as a senior partner. And if Shas goes into the opposition? “Then we’re going to make a lot of trouble for Barak,” said a Shas activist who didn’t want to be named. “It’s going to be a big mess.”

Israel’s Great Divide

As the election dust settles and coalition-building tensions grow, religion is emerging as the single most dominant factor in Israel’s current political cataclysm.

More than the peace process, more than the economy and unemployment, certainly more than the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide, the religious-secular conflict proved a key element in the way hundreds of thousands of Israelis chose to vote.

And it continues to be a key element in the way Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak is shaping his new government.

As they were in the elections, pro-Orthodox and anti-Orthodox sentiments are vying for dominance in Barak’s search for a workable governing coalition.

Some observers prefer to sidestep the seemingly self-evident conclusion that the 17 seats the fervently Orthodox Shas Party won in last week’s election –up from 10 in the outgoing Knesset — signify a mass religious revival sweeping a sizable sector in Israeli society.

Indeed, the other haredi, or fervently Orthodox, grouping — the United Torah Judaism bloc –also did well last week, increasing its Knesset representation from four to five seats.

These observers, either unwilling to face this reality or uncomfortable with it, look for social and economic factors to help explain the meteoric success of Shas, which was founded barely 15 years ago.

They cite ethnic sentiments, cultural resentments, a sense of economic discrimination.

To be sure, Shas has long played to pocketbook issues among its predominantly Sephardi following. Its ongoing funding of social support and welfare agencies had much to do with the 400,000 votes it won last week.

Without doubt, the sentiments and resentments these observers ascribe to the party’s followers are present in Shas strongholds–in the development towns in the south and far north of the country, and in the poorer suburbs of Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem, where Shas emerged as the largest party.

The resentments and ethnic assertiveness were undeniably heightened, moreover, by the conviction of Shas leader Aryeh Deri in March for bribery –a setback that the party turned into a campaign-winning advantage by brazenly attacking the verdict, the court and the entire judicial system as biased and elitist.

In the weeks before the election, Shas distributed 250,000 copies of a 72-minute videotape that minutely dissected and assailed the court verdict.

But, as a leading commentator on the Israeli religious world, Dov Elboim, noted in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot last weekend, after all those incontrovertible factors are taken into account they still cannot supplant religious revivalism as the strongest single reason for Shas’ success.

This does not mean that every Shas voter is Orthodox, or even traditional, in his or her personal religious practice.

But it does seem to clearly indicate that a new or renewed affinity for religion and religious practice is taking hold of Shas’ still-growing following –the many hundreds of thousands of Sephardim who do not unequivocally identify as secularists.

By the same token, and more so than in any previous election, hundreds of thousands of avowedly secularist Israelis voted last week specifically in response to the growth and aggressiveness of Shas, which they see as a threat to Israel’s democracy.

For example, the showing of the left-wing Meretz Party, which increased its Knesset representation to 10 from nine seats, can be ascribed in some measure to that party’s firm stand against what it sees as haredi exploitation of the system: securing draft exemptions, taking welfare payments and getting state financing for the yeshiva networks.

Moreover, the shift in the support of the Russian immigrant community from outgoing Premier Benjamin Netanyahu to Barak is ascribed unanimously by political observers to the vigorous campaign launched by the immigrant rights Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party against Shas’ control of the key Interior Ministry.

Netanyahu was seen by the Russians as in the thrall of Shas and the other Orthodox parties.

Barak’s promises not to “kowtow to extremists” fell on willing ears.

Now, those same angry and divisive considerations that motivated the various groups of voters are troubling the man elected by a landslide to serve as the next premier.

The question of whether Barak will invite Shas into his coalition has been the focus of political speculation almost since the moment the polling stations closed and the television exit polls pronounced the demise of the Netanyahu government.

Because of the poor showing of his own One Israel faction, which ended up with only 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Barak will need either Shas or the Likud, which has 19 seats — or both parties –to join him and ensure a stable government.

Barak’s office was inundated with faxes, phone calls and e-mails this week from supporters around the country, pleading with him either to take in or shut out Shas from his government.

The media have been similarly divided.

Staunchly dovish columnists are veritably begging the new premier to ally with Likud, previously the target of their most withering verbal fusillades.

Peace with the Palestinians can wait, they contend. First Israel must put its own house in order.

Others, staunchly secularist, vigorously advocate an alliance with Shas, a movement they previously excoriated, with no less vigor, as a threat to the very existence of a democratic Israel.

The stalled peace process, this latter group argues, is the more urgent and existential threat. With Barak’s election victory, the window of opportunity for moving ahead with negotiations has opened again. Shas and democracy, they say, can wait.

Barak’s pre-election pledges and post-election pronouncements emphasize his dilemma rather than ease it.

He is strongly committed to the rule of law –and therefore insists that the convicted Deri remove himself, not just formally but also in practice, from the leadership of Shas.

But he is as strongly committed to creating a wide and inclusive government.

“I will be everyone’s prime minister,” he has proclaimed repeatedly since election night. “Of those who voted for me and those who opposed me.”

Barak’s first public appearance on the morning after the election was a visit to the Western Wall — a symbolic step that his political mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, pointedly declined to take when he was first elected prime minister in 1974.

On Sunday, Barak paid a formal call on the two chief rabbis to receive their blessing and encouragement for the tasks now facing him.

The Knesset election results truly reflect the fractured and fragmented state of Israeli society.

But Barak’s convincing victory in the prime ministerial race gives him the moral authority, if not the parliamentary strength, to launch a healing process.

Israel’s Best Weapon: Middle East Peace

Anger over the stalled Mideast peace process has clearlycontributed to Arab states’ reluctance to help the United Statesdeter Saddam Hussein. That is one reason the United States is nowpressing Israel for a serious and credible plan for withdrawing fromthe West Bank, it has been widely reported. Yet the Israeligovernment and some hard-line American supporters not only mistakenlydeny the connection between the peace process and the maintenance ofan effective anti-Saddam coalition, but they also neglect the factthat such a coalition is in Israel’s vital interests.

The existential dangers to Israel posed by Iraq and Iran weremajor reasons Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo peace accords with thePalestinians and pursued peace with Syria. His logic: Accords withIsrael’s immediate neighbors would result in a de facto alliance withmoderate Arab states that could isolate and defang Saddam Hussein andthe ayatollahs, and help to quash the development of weapons of massdestruction, whose first target would be Israel. Today, the samelogic should be helping to guide Israeli, as well as American,diplomacy.

With Russia’s help, it appears that Hussein will survive thecurrent showdown with the United States and the United Nations. Butin the coming months, the longer the peace process fails to meetminimal Palestinian aspirations, the harder it will be to persuadeHussein’s neighbors to cooperate in efforts to neutralize him. Thatmeans the dangers posed by Iraq to Israel could grow even if U.N.weapons inspectors are given more free reign.

Frustration with the peace process is hardly the only reason forthe fraying of the Gulf War coalition. And a successful peace processwould be critical to Israel’s long-term security if there were noSaddam Hussein. However, in a development largely unnoticed in theWest, Hussein has become a champion of the Palestinian cause — notmerely in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but also to many pan-Arabintellectuals and the Arab masses throughout the Middle East. Hesuccessfully promoted his linkage with the Palestinians during theGulf War when he announced that Iraq would withdraw from Kuwait afterIsrael withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Today, thewidespread perception that Hussein is the last remaining Arab leaderwilling to confront Israel is one of his most important strategicassets.

Every Arab and Persian Gulf regime is frightened by Hussein’spotential to develop nonconventional weapons, but — except forKuwait — none are immune from strong domestic pressures to aid Iraqivictims of economic sanctions and support Hussein. New momentumtoward solving the Palestinian problem — and the sense that theUnited States is fostering that momentum — is an important part ofthe political cover that Iraq’s neighbors require in order toassociate themselves fully with American actions against Hussein.

Without this momentum, the international economic embargo that iscrucial to pressuring Iraq may very well collapse. Recently, therehas been an increase in the illegal movement of goods across Iraq’sborders with Iran, and other nations are reportedly chipping away atthe boycott. It will be difficult to prevent this trickle fromturning into a flood unless Middle East regimes have more incentivesto put the clamps on Hussein. The Iraqi leader’s association withPalestinian nationalism will remain a powerful disincentive as longas the Oslo peace process gets nowhere.

Even more ominously, Hussein benefits from the continuingSyrian-Israeli impasse. Syria recently reopened its Iraqi border andestablished diplomatic contacts with Baghdad. Iraq’s Deputy PrimeMinister Tariq Azziz visited Damascus two weeks ago, the first suchvisit in 18 years. These Syrian moves are prompted mainly by alarmover Israeli-Turkish military cooperation, but Israeli militaryexperts also believe that if Syrian President Assad becomes convincedthat peace talks with Israel will not yield the Golan Heights, he maybe pushed even further into Iraq’s corner.

The potential dangers: Eventually, Syria could open up its oilpipeline with Iraq, look the other way as Damascus-based terrorgroups help Hussein get the equipment needed for nonconventionalweapons, and otherwise ally itself with Iraq. That would create newthreats to Israel’s eastern front, the United States and worldstability.

None of this means that the United States should prod Israel totake steps that compromise its security, or that the PalestinianAuthority and Syria do not bear major responsibility for the currentimpasse. Moreover, Israel’s implementation of further redeploymentfrom the West Bank and its commitment to a settlement freeze, coupledwith stepped-up efforts by the Palestinian Authority to thwartterror, won’t by themselves stop Saddam Hussein. But making thesemoves as soon as possible, and renewing Israeli-Syrian negotiations,will deprive him of an important source of prestige and influence,and make it harder for him to wreak havoc.

Ofra Bengio is a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University and aspecialist on Iraq. UCLA Professor Steven L. Spiegel is the directorof Israel Policy Forum’s “Peace Pulse” project, a quarterly index ofleading Middle East peace process indicators.

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