Israelis keep a close eye on U.S. elections

Hillary Clinton is the favorite U.S. presidential candidate at Itzik Nir’s tiny juice stand, a veritable neighborhood listening post where opinions pile up as quickly as the signature orange-banana-passion fruit blends are served.

Customers giggle trying to pronounce Mike Huckabee’s name and see Barack Obama as an unknown. They’d rather stick to Clinton, who they see as a sure thing for Israel, Nir said.

“We are so closely influenced by what happens in the United States, so people think it’s in their own self-interest to support Hillary, assuming she will do more for Israel,” he said.

With a mix of concern for their future and amusement at the marching bands and baby-kissing style of U.S. electoral politics, Israelis are tuning in to see who might be the next U.S. president.

“Of course we are all following the elections: This is going to be our president, too,” said actor Michael Koresh, speaking only slightly tongue in cheek. He, too, is rooting for Clinton.

Israeli media had been giving top billing to stories about the U.S. campaign until President Bush arrived in the country Wednesday and the focus shifted to the current American president.

In the lead-up to the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, Israeli TV reporters breathlessly reported on the suspense and twists of the campaigns in live reports from the primaries’ battle grounds.

Just like American reporters, they also speculate on the effect of Clinton’s tears, McCain’s comeback and Obama’s charisma, and they salivate at the signs of a real race.

Israeli reporters also betray some amusement at the festive style of the campaigns, with their requisite balloons, cheerleaders and apple-pie-style applauding crowds.

“Listen to the crowd. Hear their cheers!” one Channel 10 reporter shouted over the din this week at Clinton’s campaign headquarters in New Hampshire.

Israeli media are covering the Republican candidates less closely than the Democrats. One reporter even had to be prompted by his anchor in Israel to discuss the subject.

“And there are, after all, Republicans. What about them?” the anchor asked.

Danny Horvitz leaves on the TV set in his corner grocery so customers can watch the latest news, including the results from the U.S. primaries.

“People are watching what is going on because this is about our future, too,” he said.

Israelis seem relatively unfazed by the prospect of a black man or a woman in the White House for the first time.

“It’s more exciting for the Americans than it is for us,” Nir said at the juice stand. “We’ve already had a woman prime minister.”

Robert Grosz and his wife, Eden, have been arguing about Obama’s electability. She says Obama has momentum, but he thinks America is not yet ready for a black president. He’s backing Clinton.

Clinton’s famous husband seems to be her primary advantage in a country that fondly recalls Bill Clinton as a close friend with not only a political but also an emotional attachment to Israel. When Bill Clinton left the presidency in 2000, Israeli polls showed an overwhelming majority would vote for him to lead Israel if only they had the chance.

“I like Clinton because she’s the next closest thing to her husband,” Robert Grosz said.

Representatives of both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad in Israel said they have seen a surge of interest in the elections by Israelis and American Israelis.

Both groups have been flooded by requests by U.S. citizens for information about voting in the primaries — something that did not happen in the same numbers during the last election, they said.

Israelis are catching election fever, said Kory Bardsash, the chair of Republicans Abroad in Israel.

“They are beginning to get wind of it. There is lots of news on Clinton and ‘Who is this Obama guy?’ and ‘Who is the best person?’ ” he said. “I think they are beginning to recognize something is going on here.”

Whoever wins the general election in November, the Israelis interviewed did not seem too concerned that the next president would be anything but pro-Israel.

Shmuel Rosner, Ha’aretz’s U.S. correspondent reporting from New Hampshire, wrote in his blog that the U.S. elections and the changes it might bring are “a strange riddle for the Israeli decision-maker.”

He said the mix of familiar faces like Clinton and Rudy Giuliani and lesser-known quantities like Obama and Huckabee makes the election stage a bewildering place.

“The winds of sweeping change raise some questions: What will the approach of the elected officials be toward Iran? How will they want to advance the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue?” Rosner wrote.

Grosz said he and his wife find the American campaign style both hokey and a waste of money.

But Grosz said he does wish Israel would take one lesson from America’s political system of representation: “I wish I could have a senator — someone I could speak to and feel represented by,” he lamented. “There is lots to learn from Americans.”

Condi vs. Holbrooke on Foreign Policy

Just days before the U.S. elections, the presidential candidates are sending the same broad messages about their approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the greater Middle East, but they differ sharply on the details.

In exclusive interviews with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, and Richard Holbrooke, a senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. John Kerry, laid out their respective candidate’s vision for the Middle East over the next four years.

A second term of the Bush administration would hope to use Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as the start of new progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

“I think what you will see is, if Prime Minister Sharon is successful in moving forward on his disengagement plan, that that could provide a new impetus for the Palestinians to move toward reform, as they get ready to take responsibilities in the Gaza, and it could provide an impetus then for a beginning of negotiations between the parties,” Rice said in a telephone interview from her White House office on Tuesday.

A Kerry White House would look to appoint an envoy to the region, not to force Israel to make concessions, but to pressure Arab governments to stop sponsoring terror, Holbrooke said in a separate interview.

“You go to Riyadh and tell these guys to stop supporting the worst anti-Israeli elements and the worst anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist literature around the world,” said Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, adding that such an envoy could help reduce Israel’s isolation in the world.

Both advisers said their respective candidate’s would continue the policy of not talking to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and supported Israel’s plans to disengage from the Gaza Strip and to erect a security barrier in the West Bank.

In the minds of the campaigns, the battle for Jewish votes in this election has focused squarely on which candidate will do more to protect Israel and fight the war on terrorism.

The significance of the Jewish vote is what brought both Holbrooke and Rice to Florida this week to address a national gathering of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Both advisers are well-respected in the Jewish community and could, depending on who wins next week’s election, play leading roles in shaping U.S. foreign policy over the next four years. The missions for the two advisers in talking to the pro-Israel community are very different.

Rice and the Bush campaign are working to boost the number of Jews, traditionally a Democratic voting bloc, who will back Bush’s re-election because they like his record on Israel.

Holbrooke and the Democrats, however, are working to maintain the voting bloc and alleviate concerns Jewish voters may have about Kerry’s foreign policy, and specifically the envoy idea.

“If we have an envoy, if we have an effort in the region, it is not at Israel’s expense,” Holbrooke told the AIPAC gathering Sunday. “It is not unilateral concessions with no one to negotiate.”

Some Jewish activists say they think an envoy would pressure Israel to make concessions, and that Kerry’s support for a multilateral approach to foreign affairs would put more stock in the anti-Israel views of European and Arab states. They also fear Kerry could appoint someone they see as anti-Israel, like former President Jimmy Carter and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, both of whom Kerry mentioned in a speech earlier this year as possible candidates as envoy, but the idea has long since dismissed.

Instead, Holbrooke said, an envoy could work in the region to press neighboring states to stop terrorism, singling out Saudi Arabia.

“This is not just about the Palestinian Authority,” he told JTA after the speech, saying the envoy would have immense difficulty dealing with any Palestinian leader, because Arafat would stifle the process.

Rice seemed to mock the envoy idea, suggesting that such a person would “wander around” the region, telling Arab countries things they already hear.

“It may well be that at some point in time, someone else can help in this process, an envoy, I wouldn’t rule it out,” Rice said. “But it’s not the answer, just sending somebody out there to wander around the Arab states and tell them they need to stop incitement. Everyone is telling them they need to stop incitement.”

While Jews across the political spectrum have praised Bush for isolating Arafat and supporting Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip (see page 24) and some West Bank settlements, critics say his administration has not been engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The critics say the White House should more actively push for Palestinian reforms and push both parties to move the process forward.

Rice responded to the criticism, saying: “We continue to be engaged with our Middle East partners, but we have really believed since the spring that the best chance for strong re-engagement will be when the Israeli disengagement plan goes forward.”

In both her address to AIPAC on Monday and in the interview, Rice said the Bush administration would rely heavily on support from states that still talk with Arafat, looking to them to help reform the Palestinian government and pressure Arafat to step aside.

“We can simply not afford to have a situation in which new Palestinian leadership does not emerge,” she said in the interview. “I believe that the international community increasingly understands that.”

She said Bush would continue to work from his vision outlined on June 24, 2002 — which focused on reforming the Palestinian Authority, isolating Arafat and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005 — and was gratified by signals from the Sharon government that he does not see the Gaza withdrawal as an end to the peace process.

“The United States has also been very concerned and very gratified that the Israelis have made clear that it is not Gaza only, that it is Gaza first with four settlements in the West Bank being a part of the initial parts of this to demonstrate that there is a link between Gaza and the West Bank,” she said in the interview.

Cognizant of strong support for Bush’s Middle East policies among AIPAC loyalists, Holbrooke did not challenge the Republican’s Middle East credentials but tried to place Kerry on the same tier, emphasizing that both candidates support Israel’s latest strategy.

“I don’t want us to have a contest over who is more or less pro-Israel, because I don’t think that’s in the national interest in a presidential campaign, when both men are supportive of Israel,” Holbrooke said in the interview.

However, he added, Kerry is better because he had never “played footsie with the Saudis.” He also reiterated Kerry’s criticisms of Bush’s policy in Iraq, and he said that he believed little progress could be made on the Israeli-Palestinian track until the situation in Iraq is stabilized.

Responding to this week’s news that explosives from Iraq may have gone missing in Iraq, Rice defended U.S. action in the region and suggested the United States is on the course to making the Jewish state safer.

“I think you have to ask yourself — was Israel, or for that matter, the United States, safe prior to the invasion of Iraq?” she said. “I think what you had in the Middle East was a false sense of stability, where a tyrannical and dangerous regime like Saddam Hussein was actually not being contained.”

On Iran, Rice credited the president with putting Iran on the international agenda and said the nuclear threat posed by Iran could be handled diplomatically. She told the AIPAC gathering that the world needed to get tough and isolate Iran if it continues its nuclear weapons program, and that the matter would likely be handled in the United Nations Security Council.

“I think we can make diplomacy work here,” she said.

But Holbrooke disagreed. Referring to European efforts to negotiate with Iran on the issue, he said: “Continuing the policy of letting the French, German and British represent an international coalition in Tehran will not succeed. Europe will never be an effective diplomatic tool without the United States taking the lead.”

Rice also said that the Bush administration is continuing to have “pretty intense conversations” with Syria about its support for terrorist groups that target Israel.

“The Syrians, I would say, don’t seem to have gotten the message consistently,” she said. “But I’m confident that if we stay on course and continue to pursue that message, they, too, will understand there isn’t another course for them.”

Both advisers could be central in shaping future foreign policy.

Holbrooke is considered a front-runner for secretary of state in a Kerry administration. And if he doesn’t get that post, he is talked about as a possible Middle East envoy.

While he would not speculate in the interview on possible positions if Kerry wins, he did seek to shore up his credentials. He said he had concerns about dealing with Arafat when he was at the United Nations, and he stressed he was not part of the group associated with the failed Oslo peace plan.

“Oslo was an unsuccessful effort,” he said. “You can’t go back to that situation.”

Rice also would not speculate about the next four years if her boss is re-elected but suggested her desire may not be to continue to serve the administration.

“I am an academic at heart, and there’s a part of me that wants to go back to academic life,” she said. “But I have not made a decision at this time.”

‘Dreamers’ Still Hold Hope for Peace

Sometimes, they say, hope shines brightest in the darkest hours. Palestinians and Israelis have never been further apart in the past decade, with nearly 3,000 people killed in the two years of the Palestinian intifada.

Yet "the dreamers," as some call them, are still busy preparing peace plans, as if all that is needed to bring peace to the Holy Land are a few intelligent position papers. Many of the peace plans are the work of academics and would-be politicians.

Lacking the authority to implement their plans, the authors are free to combine fantasy with wishful thinking. However, among the "dreamers" are some with sound political records, and — perhaps more importantly — they represent Palestinian-Israeli collaboration.

While the plans may have little chance of being implemented in the near future, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has many examples where once-radical ideas slowly moved from the margins to the mainstream, finally becoming policy. Even the Oslo accords, which radically reshaped relations between the two parties and held out the prospect of peace, began in talks led by Israeli academics before the Israeli leadership offered its sponsorship.

Top on the list of "dreams" right now are the joint peace plans of Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, on the one hand, and Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh on the other. Beilin, the architect of the Oslo accords and a former justice minister, recently quit the Labor Party and joined Meretz. Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Authority minister of culture and information, is considered among the more moderate Palestinian figures.

Ayalon is a decorated commando, former commander of both the navy and the Shin Bet general security service and an outspoken dove. Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, holds the Palestinian Liberation Organizatio’s Jerusalem portfolio and is a longtime advocate of peace with Israel.

All four are respected figures, yet all represent a minority in their communities, without the power to initiate real change.

It’s not always easy to find the differences between the plans. Both call for many of the same principles: a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian renunciation of the right of return and of terrorism, an end to Israeli control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to Beilin, the main difference between the two documents is that the Ayalon-Nusseibeh blueprint serves as a declaration of principles, whereas the Beilin-Abed Rabbo paper goes into details, trying to continue negotiations that broke off in Taba nearly two years ago. Beilin and Abed Rabbo began working on their agreement shortly after the Taba talks ended.

"A few days after Taba, I told Yossi that had we had a little more time, we could have reached a final and absolute settlement," Abed Rabbo said. "Even today, I believe that never before in the history of the two peoples were they so close to an agreement."

Beilin and Abed Rabbo say they are again close to reaching an agreement — but they no longer have the political influence to carry it out.

Both teams are still working on their papers, and want to publicize them after Israel’s Jan. 28 election. Beilin is convinced that Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna would support his plan if he didn’t feel obligated to take Labor toward the center to attract undecided voters. Both teams have refrained from officially publishing their papers, fearing that publication would cause more harm than benefit.

Though Labor recently chose a Knesset list that is more centrist than Mitzna, there are some indications that the left still maintains strong influence within the party. For example, the party’s election platform for the first time will refer to Jerusalem just as "Israel’s capital, including its Jewish neighborhoods." Gone is the traditional reference to Jerusalem as "whole and united," implying that Labor would be willing to relinquish Arab parts of the city.

Even former party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said that control over the "holy basin" — the holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City — would be negotiated among representatives of the three major religions, a far cry from the official Likud policy that no concessions will be made on Jerusalem.

Similarly, Palestinian moderates have published advertisements in the East Jerusalem media calling on the Palestinians to support the Israeli peace camp, specifically mentioning Mitzna and Ayalon. The ads are signed by The Popular Campaign for Peace and Democracy-Palestine, apparently a front organization for Nusseibeh’s supporters.

The ads openly call for Palestinian intervention in the elections on Mitzna’s behalf. "Mitzna is committed to the solution proposed by Ami Ayalon," one ad read. "Let us help him to implement its clauses." "Supporting the Ayalon document means evacuation of the settlements," another ad read.

The ads quote parts of the Ayalon-Nusseibeh document. For the first time, they say, the document includes "recognition of the Palestinian right of return," but specifies that Palestinian refugees will be able to return only to a future Palestinian state, not to Israel.

Previous, unofficial versions of the document had referred only to "recognition of the suffering and plight of the Palestinian refugees." The Beilin-Abed Rabbo draft refers to "a symbolic solution of the refugee problem," without specifically mentioning that the Palestinians give up the "right of return."

In any case, Abed Rabbo said, a worldwide plebiscite among Palestinian refugees will have to be held for them to endorse such a solution. For its part, Israel would give up control of the Temple Mount under the Beilin-Abed Rabbo plan, though it doesn’t say so explicitly.

While such proposals may seem far-fetched given the current level of violence and terrorism, most Israelis and Palestinians believe their leaders one day will return to the bargaining table — and they may just be looking for some fresh ideas to revive the peace process.

Mistrust in the Mideast

The wheels are spinning beneath the battered chassis of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but the brakes are being applied by that perennial opponent of Mideast progress: mistrust.

As Israeli and Palestinian officials try to hammer out a plan to test Palestinian security guarantees, voices on each side accuse the other of tricks.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s “Gaza First” plan proposes a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank to test the Palestinian Authority’s willingness and ability to crack down on terror against Israel.

Palestinian Authority Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh suggested Bethlehem as the “pilot” cease-fire city in the West Bank. If successful, the plan would be extended to other West Bank areas.

The Palestinian Authority approved the Ben-Eliezer proposal in principle. But leaders of the dozen or so Palestinian paramilitary organizations were highly critical of the decision, seeing it as a trap to legitimize Israeli occupation of Palestinian cities.

Some even suggested that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was buying into the proposal in a desperate attempt to regain his “relevance” on the international stage.

Israel was equally emphatic in its suspicion of Palestinian motives. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting that Palestinian Authority approval of the “Gaza First” idea was “simply a ruse to please the Americans” while a Palestinian delegation was talking with Bush administration officials in Washington.

The very name of the “Gaza First” plan — which recalls the “Gaza and Jericho First” plan that in 1994 initiated Palestinian Authority rule under the Oslo accords — symbolizes the extent to which the 2-year-old intifada has rolled back the gains of years of peacemaking and trust-building.

Israelis were equally skeptical of reports that Palestinian factions were once again on the verge of pledging not to attack Israeli civilians, at least inside Israel proper.

Palestinian officials had claimed they were about to issue a cease-fire in July until Israel assassinated Salah Shehada, the head of Hamas’ military wing in the Gaza Strip, killing some 15 civilians in the process.

Palestinians staged several spectacular terrorist attacks, ostensibly in revenge for Shehada’s death. But then they again considered the possibility of declaring a cease-fire — albeit one that would sanction attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israelis dismissed the talk as a public relations exercise or as diplomatic cover that would allow Palestinian fighters to regroup and prepare for future attacks.

They also feared a repetition of Israel’s experience in Lebanon, where the two sides agreed on a moratorium on attacking civilians. In practice, that allowed Hezbollah fighters to shelter behind Lebanese civilians while attacking Israeli soldiers.

All those questions appeared to become moot early this week, however, as the Palestinian factions dropped the cease-fire initiative and instead called for continued attacks.

“We stress the legitimacy of our resistance against [the Israeli] aggression and the occupation, and the Israeli settlements,” the groups said in a draft statement. The statement affirms both violence and “political work” as legitimate tools toward the Palestinians’ goals.

Beyond the bluster, however, some Israelis detected signs that the intifada’s physical, economic and diplomatic toll was exhausting the Palestinians.

The fact that Arafat’s Fatah movement was reaching out to other groups to consider even a partial cease-fire shows a recognition that the war against Israel has failed, and that Palestinians are searching for a way out, some Israeli analysts said.

For several weeks now, the Supreme Intifada Monitoring Committee, an umbrella group of all Palestinian factions, has been working on a covenant meant to produce a joint, binding definition of Palestinian goals and the means to achieve them. It also grapples with the need for reform of P.A. institutions.

Palestinian spokesmen insist the covenant is not meant as a concession either to Israel or America, where President Bush, in late June, demanded comprehensive P.A. reforms, including Arafat’s replacement, as a condition for Palestinian statehood.

The covenant was to have been signed in mid-August, but the signing ceremony was deferred when Hamas officials asked for more time to consider their position. Earlier, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabah, met Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in Gaza to advance agreement on the covenant.

Particularly galling to Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist, is the document’s call for a Palestinian state only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders say that even if they sign the document, they will reserve the right to continue advocating a Palestinian state not next to Israel, but in place of it.

Israelis, meanwhile, asked how much of this development constituted genuine change on which new peace agreements could be built? To what extent was it tactical maneuvering to enable battered terrorist groups — which the Palestinian Authority is obligated to disband rather than co-opt — to regroup and fight another day? How much of it was simply a way for the discredited Arafat to hang on to power?

Part of the Israeli mistrust stems from the fact that the covenant would establish a joint Palestinian decision-making body that includes all Palestinian factions, with Arafat at its head. This could simply be another way for Arafat to retain power — and as long as he does, Israelis argue, nothing positive will happen.

To help overcome the mutual mistrust and create conditions for a cease-fire, the Americans are pushing ahead with plans to reform the Palestinian security services. After spending several weeks in the region, a CIA team recently made detailed recommendations for changes in the structure, assignment, operation, recruitment and training of the Palestinian security services, which would be placed under a unified command.

The Americans also will soon send an envoy to the region to assess reforms in Palestinian government and economic procedures.

But in their dealings with the Palestinians, the Americans, and the Israelis for that matter, face an acute dilemma: In order to promote the reform program they need to talk to Palestinians in positions of authority, but often those Palestinians are close confidants of Arafat, the man the reforms are supposed to sideline.

In early August talks in Washington, for example, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said openly that he was there representing Arafat. It is, therefore, by no means clear whether the reforms and the strong undercurrent of Palestinian criticism of the leadership are pushing Arafat out, or whether Arafat is controlling the reforms and the protesters to solidify his grip on power.

If it is the former, the cease-fire efforts may have a chance; if the latter, Israeli intelligence sources contend, the terror will not stop for any length of time.

Still, even a partial and largely tactical Palestinian cease-fire will put tremendous strains on Israel’s already fragile national unity government.

On Sunday, Sharon made it clear that he is considering going to early elections over the budget. A cease-fire, which the National Religious Party on the right will almost certainly reject as a trap, could set off a process of disintegration of the Likud-led coalition.

And on the left, Labor leaders already are predicting a January election, in which relations with the Palestinians will be a key issue.

Assessing Netanyahu’s Past Policies

It’s still unclear whether former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to run in the upcoming election, but analysts already are wondering how a second Netanyahu administration might differ from the first.

Three years after defeating incumbent Shimon Peres by a hair’s breadth, Netanyahu was trounced by Ehud Barak in May 1999 by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, a landslide in Israeli electoral terms.

As returns filed in, Bibi, as he is known to friend and foe alike, announced his resignation from the Likud Party and from Israeli politics, but few believed his exile would be permanent.

Soon after Barak stunned the nation with his announcement Saturday that he was resigning, Netanyahu stepped in to announce that he intended to run for the premiership.

He denounced Barak’s resignation as a “cynical trick” intended to prevent Netanyahu from running. According to Israeli law, he is not eligible because he is not a sitting member of the Knesset.

The Knesset is now considering legislation that would amend current law, thereby enabling him to run.
There are Israeli precedents for political rehabilitation.

Yitzhak Rabin’s first term as premier was marked by frequent mistakes born of political immaturity, but he returned to power 15 years later, in 1992, for a second term that set in motion Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and changed the course of Israeli history.

Netanyahu, too, pledged in announcing his candidacy on Sunday to learn the lessons of his failed term, which was marked by frequent scandals, policy shifts and abominable relations with his party and cabinet.
But has he learned enough in such a short time to chart a more successful course the second time around?
So far, he has offered few clues to the policies he would pursue if re-elected.

During the past 18 months, Netanyahu rarely criticized the Barak government publicly, concentrating instead on his business interests as a high-tech consultant and public speaker and toughing out a police investigation on bribery and fraud charges from which he emerged without indictment this fall.

Since announcing his candidacy, Netanyahu has criticized Barak for “broadcasting weakness” in his handling of the 10-week-old Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but was vague about what he would do differently.

Israel needs to be tougher with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said.

“I think it’s using force more wisely, and not necessarily only military force,” he said. He also said that he would “restore Israel’s deterrent strength” and strike at the Palestinian Authority’s organs of government.
Absent was any larger vision for the peace process, which lost much of its momentum under Netanyahu, who insisted on Palestinian “reciprocity” when Israel fulfilled its commitments under the Oslo process.
The best to which Israel can aspire is a “cold peace,” Netanyahu said on Sunday, not the pipe dream of Scandinavia-style relations in the Middle East.

After three years in which Labor Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres did not halt Israeli concessions despite Palestinian violations of the accords, Netanyahu’s insistence on reciprocity was seen by much of the world — and much of the Israeli public — as an excuse to hinder a peace process he had inherited but never really accepted.

Netanyahu, however, said Sunday that his policy of caution and reciprocity has been vindicated, and he contrasted it to what he called Barak’s determination to reach an agreement with the Palestinians “at any price.”

Knowing that they would pay a price for their transgressions, the Palestinians sharply reduced the level of terror when he was in office, Netanyahu said.

Comparing casualty figures during his term to those both before — which included the wave of bus bombings in 1995-96 — and after, including the current Palestinian uprising, Netanyahu claimed that Israelis regained a sense of personal security during his term.

The Arab world, however, was deeply suspicious of Netanyahu, and his honeymoon was brief.
In September 1996, after Netanyahu opened a new exit to a tourist tunnel in Jerusalem’s Old City, Palestinians rioted throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaving some 15 Israeli soldiers dead.
It was the first time Palestinian policemen turned Israeli-supplied weapons on Israeli forces, a grave escalation that foreshadowed the current violence.

Despite his mistrust of Palestinian intentions, Netanyahu, the son of a right-wing ideologue, became the first Likud leader to make territorial concessions in the West Bank, the cradle of Jewish history.

International pressure after the “tunnel riots” forced Netanyahu to hand most of the biblical West Bank city of Hebron to Palestinian Authority control.

Likewise, under fierce pressure from President Clinton at the Wye Plantation summit in October 1998, Netanyahu agreed to cede more West Bank territory to the Palestinian Authority, though little of the accord ultimately was carried out.

Israel’s relations with the United States and the world also suffered during Netanyahu’s term.

Clinton, in particular, reportedly was angered by Netanyahu’s purported arrogance and his willingness to appeal directly to the U.S. Congress when he found the president’s positions unpalatable.

On the economic front, Netanyahu accelerated the privatization of state-owned industries and took several major steps to liberalize the Israeli economy.

As the peace process slowed, however, the giddy economic boom of the early 1990s gave way to recession, and unemployment and social issues had replaced peace as the most prominent campaign issue when Barak challenged Netanyahu in 1999.

New Urgency for Peacemaking

For the players in the Middle East peace process, it may seem like the two-minute warning.

A peace treaty may be Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s only chance at being reelected prime minister in next year’s elections.

The threat of a harder-line Likud leadership in Israel may convince Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat that it is urgent to strike a deal. And Bill Clinton, with less than two months remaining in his presidency, may have only one more chance to leave the diplomatic mark he has yearned for in eight years in office.

But can it be done?

Yossi Beilin, Israel’s minister of justice, said last Friday, “there is a chance” that a peace treaty could be agreed to during the last 50 days of the Clinton Administration.

“We in the Middle East, despite all the differences and all the political costs, we are able to make peace,” Beilin said in a lecture to Johns Hopkins University’s Washington-based international studies school. “The mainstream in both societies understand that if we want to live, we have to live together.”

But while the parties might be motivated to return to the table, the same problems that have prevented a peace process in the past still linger.

Beilin, who met with the U.S. national security adviser, Sandy Berger, last Friday, said the Israelis and the Palestinians solved the issue of territories during the Camp David summit this summer and were very close to an agreement on security and the settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

That leaves Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, the two hot-button issues that stalled the summit’s attempts at a new peace treaty.

The catalysts for a new round of talks are Barak’s call last week for early elections and the consensus opinion that a new peace agreement may be his only chance at retaining power.

Barak reiterated last week that he would like to reach a partial accord with the Palestinians that would encompass border issues, security and the future of the settlements but postpone a final decision on the status of Jerusalem.

“Barak is walking a tightrope between believing a deal could be good for the country and help him politically and not tempting Yasser Arafat to jack up the price and make a deal counterproductive,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Palestinian officials have said that they are not interested in an interim solution.

“We will not be part of Israel’s election campaign,” Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator, said to the media Nov. 29. “The issues he spoke about — the 10 percent of the land and so forth — these issues were supposed to be implemented last November. Once there is an agreement, there must be a comprehensive one. There is nothing new in what he said.”

Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Barak might have a difficult time convincing Palestinians that his country will support any new concessions he makes, but new concessions are essential to any new agreement.

“I think the Oslo framework has taken us as close to the mountain as we are going to get,” Alterman said. “I think we will have to be more creative.”

But any new Israeli concessions will only show Barak’s desperation and political weakness, said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Report and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

“There is a collapse of will among the Israeli leadership, and the Palestinians believe they can do a whole lot better through force,” Pipes said. “Whatever Barak puts on the table will be seen as the minimum.”

If no deal is struck and the Likud Party returns to power in Israel, chances may dwindle that negotiations can pick up where they left off at Camp David.

“Arafat believes that he can be the kingmaker in Israel, but there is a real danger that he overplays his hand, and this could blow up in Barak’s or Arafat’s face,” Makovsky said.

But although Labor and Likud employ different language when discussing concessions, Pipes said the parties’ fundamental stances are not that divergent. Additionally, any deal signed by a Likud prime minister almost automatically has the support of Labor and, therefore, a majority of people in Israel.

Arafat also might consider waiting for a new resident in the White House — one who is less involved and whom Palestinians perceive as less pro-Israel.

“Too many Arabs have whispered into Arafat’s ear that he will get a better deal if he only waits for George W. Bush,” Makovksy said.

Barak would be wise to put off elections for as long as possible, giving him time after the United States settles its presidential battle to restart the peace process, Makovsky said.

But waiting would leave Barak without Clinton, one of his key allies, and would leave that ally out of the peace process he has helped shape for eight years.

Although his term in the White House is almost over, Clinton does not have the problems that most lame-duck leaders would face. Because of the confusion over who is the next president, Clinton’s status is in fact heightened, and he has as much weight in the United States as he did before Election Day.

Two months from now, the next president, whether Bush or Vice President Al Gore, may still be required to intervene in the Middle East but is unlikely to have the same passion for the region.

“I think American presidents are drawn to the Middle East either by opportunity or necessity,” Makovsky said. “I don’t think after what Clinton has gone through another president is going to say, ‘Let’s see how I can succeed where he failed.’ ”

In a phone conversation with Barak last week, Clinton acknowledged the “narrowing window of what he can do while still in office,” National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said, but both leaders said they still see a role for Clinton.

Beilin seemed confident that the two sides can return to the negotiating table before Clinton’s term ends. He said that although both Palestinians and Israelis may believe they deserve more concessions, they must work together to find a middle ground that makes the region livable.

“Dreams are nice, and fights are sometimes very heroic,” he said. “But the bottom line is death and guns.”

For the current leaders even to discuss getting back together to hash out an agreement, the violence in the region must be toned down, if not halted entirely, experts said.

The hope of a lasting accord is remote. Chances are better, analysts said, for a continuation of the interim status agreed to at Oslo.

And although expectations are being downplayed, American Jews are holding out hope for some agreement in the short term.

“When a room is very dark, even a small candle creates a lot of light,” said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace group. “It may be a long shot, but it’s the best chance we may see for a long time for a far-reaching deal.”

Enter the New Prime Minister: Ehud Barak

Two decades ago, after hearing the then-Col. Ehud Barak deliver a eulogy for a fallen comrade, popular Israeli poet Haim Guri predicted: “One day, this man will be prime minister.” On May 17, Israel’s voters proved him right. Barak was elected by a landslide, his 56 percent to 44 percent for the right-wing incumbent, Binyamin Netanyahu — the younger brother of the man Barak eulogized in 1976, Yonatan Netanyahu, who was killed rescuing a planeload of hijacked passengers at Entebbe airport.

Barak’s countrymen have been prophesying great things for him since he launched his military career nearly 40 years ago. When he passed out of his first officers’ course with distinction, Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin said: “If this boy doesn’t make chief of staff, there’s something wrong with the system.” Moshe Dayan, the skeptical, eye-patched hero of the 1967 Six-Day War, added: “He’s too good to be true.”

When Barak hung up his uniform in 1995 after four years in the army’s top job, Rabin brought him into his Cabinet and tapped him as heir apparent. He served briefly as minister of the interior, then foreign minister (after Rabin’s assassination in November that year). Following Netanyahu’s defeat of Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, in 1996, Barak was elected leader of the Labor Party.

In this spring’s election, he fought like a general. His campaign was focused. He selected his targets — the Russian immigrant voters, as well as the disenchanted blue-collar Sephardim, who had voted Netanyahu in 1996, then found themselves on the dole — and stuck to them.

“He was at the heart of every decision,” testified one of his American spin doctors, Robert Shrum. “Once he makes up his mind,” said an old friend, Ron Ben-Yishai, “he goes at it like a missile.”

Like Rabin and Dayan, the 57-year-old Barak will always be seen as a soldier turned politician. But he brings a broader, more trained intellect to the premiership. After the 1967 war, he earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and a master’s in systems analysis at Stanford. He is an accomplished classical pianist. Acquaintances say that he can talk as knowledgeably about the novels of Dostoyevsky and Proust as about those of the modern Israeli masters Amos Oz and A.B. Yeshoshua. He jogs, likes a good cigar and an occasional drink. The eulogy he delivered for Yonatan Netanyahu is taught in Israeli high schools for the richness of its Hebrew language. His wife, Navah, teaches English. They have three grown-up daughters.

Barak was born of pioneering, kibbutz stock in Mishmar Hasharon, where his parents still live. In the army, he commanded the top special operations unit. As Israel’s most decorate soldier — a record his television campaign spots highlighted remorselessly — he won the Distinguished Service Medal and four citations.

In May 1972, he led a squad, disguised as white-overalled maintenance men, that stormed a hijacked Belgian airliner at Tel Aviv Airport. A month later, he and his commandos snatched five Syrian intelligence officers, on a tour of inspection in southern Lebanon, as a bargaining counter for Israeli prisoners of war. The following spring, dressed as a buxom woman tourist with a brunet wig, Barak led a hit team that landed in Lebanon from the sea and killed three Palestinian leaders in their Beirut apartments.

After graduating from special forces, he went on to command an armored division and the intelligence corps. Subordinates dubbed him “Napoleon,” a reference not just to his stocky build but to his supreme self-confidence and intolerance of those who failed to measure up to his standards.

Amos Gilboa, Barak’s deputy at military intelligence, said: “He is very demanding. Freedom to do things without his permission is a privilege for those he trusts. You have to get it right. If he sees that people handle things loosely or against his directives, he will come down on them without mercy.”

Ron Ben-Yishai, a military commentator who served with Barak as a young officer and studied with him at university, added: “He’s very determined, very ambitious. He’s a man of his word. He thinks very fast and tends to rely on himself. But he reacts slowly. He’s a calculator, a tough guy. It is very difficult to pressure him.”

As a civilian politician, he has learned to seek advice. “He listens,” said Ben-Yishai. “He respects different opinions. He’s open-minded. He grasps things very quickly. The downside is that he gets bored very easily, then he neglects things he ought not to neglect.”

On the campaign trail, he learned to glad-hand the voters, if not quite to kiss their babies. “He was never an emotional person,” Ben-Yishai said, “but once he saw that it was important to hug people if he wanted to win, he became one.”

Similarly, the strictly secular Barak has started quoting Jewish texts, something his friends say he never did before. He is courting religious parties in an attempt to build a government of national reconciliation. “He quotes the Bible, and quotes it fluently, because he thinks he needs it,” said Ben-Yishai. “It’s an instrument, but he’s not a liar. He wasn’t anti-religious before. He’s always respected the Jewish tradition.”

Like Dayan and Rabin, Ehud Barak is a Labor hawk destined to make peace. He starts with a huge fund of goodwill, at home and abroad. Israeli analysts are warning him not to squander it. “The real test of his leadership,” Sima Karmon wrote in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot in the heady dawn of May 18, “starts this morning.”

‘I Am a Coalition of One’

Regarding the domestic political pressures thatBinyamin Netanyahu faces in his decision-making on the peace process,the prime minister himself probably summed it up best in the “Israelat 50” interview he gave to Newsweek: “I am a coalition ofone.”

The prime minister may have to contend with theClinton administration, he may have one half-opened eye on what’sgoing on with the Palestinians, but he has little to fear on thedomestic front — either from politicians or public opinion.

Not long ago, it was believed that the right-wingfaction in the government — mainly the National Religious Party, butalso hard-liners in the Likud — was constraining Netanyahu frommaking too many concessions to the Palestinians. The prime ministerhas reportedly made this case time and again to his Americaninterlocutors.

But this argument went out the window recentlywhen Netanyahu initiated negotiations to bring the Moledet (Homeland)Party into his coalition. Moledet ‘s platform for peace with thePalestinians is to “transfer” them all out of the West Bank and Gaza.The PM can hardly complain of right-wing pressures when he is tryingto co-opt the most ultranationalist party in the Knesset.

Still, as word came from Netanyahu’s circles thathe was moving closer to accepting the American proposal for a secondIsraeli redeployment from the West Bank, forces on the right werethreatening to bring him down.

Aharon Domb, head of the settlers’ YESHA (Judea,Samaria and Gaza) Council, said, “It turns out that the primeminister is moving in the direction the Americans are leading him,and if he harms the settlements or Israel’s national interests, in myestimate, he won’t have a government.”

Transport Minister Shaul Yahalom of the NationalReligious Party warned, “If this arrangement means that any of thesettlements are isolated or threatened or limited in their ability togrow, then we will not support it.”

But what option does the right have? Twice before,right-wing leaders have given back territories to the Arabs –Menachem Begin in the Camp David Accord and Netanyahu in the HebronAgreement — and both times, they won their Knesset majoritiesdespite considerable opposition within their own ranks. Support fromthe Labor Party made up the difference. Opposition leader Ehud Barakhas pledged that if Netanyahu makes a credible peace offering to thePalestinians, Labor again will provide the “safety net” to neutralizeright-wing defectors.

And if the rightists in the Cabinet organize toscotch the second redeployment before it ever gets to the Knesset,Netanyahu can turn to the Labor Party to join him in a national unitygovernment — a national unity government for peace, which would beterrifically popular with the public and difficult for Labor to turndown even if it wanted to.

Ultimately, bringing down Netanyahu means callingnew elections, and the right wing has no candidate who approaches himin popularity. Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon is leading thecharge by the right, but he is pushing 70 and likely has too extremean image to attract the all-important electoral center. The primeminister is even less threatened by his opposition on the left.Barak’s poll ratings are going steadily down, and he now trailsNetanyahu consistently by about 7 percent. As Barak tries desperatelyto portray himself as a centrist and distance himself from Meretz,his politics have come to seem indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s.When the prime minister was refusing to withdraw from 13 percent ofthe West Bank, as the Americans and Palestinians demanded, Barak saidthe he would refuse, too.

“As an opposition leader, he’s pathetic,” sayspolitical commentator Sylvie Keshet. “He ought to listen to RubyRivlin, who is the Likud’s comedian in the Knesset. Rivlin has begunusing Labor’s own slogan: ‘With Barak we will win!'”

As for the Israeli street, it’s as quiet as aShabbat afternoon in Jerusalem. Demonstrations by Peace Now and otherleft-wing groups can hardly attract more than a couple of hundredwell-behaved people to chant — with audible lack of conviction –“Bibi go home.” Peace Now leader Mussi Raz says, lamentingly,”Unfortunately, you can only get masses of people out to protestafter the violence breaks out, not before. That’s the way it wasduring the Lebanon War, that’s the way it was during theintifada, andthat’s the way it is now.”

Last weekend’s riots by Palestinians, in which atleast five of them were shot to death by Israeli army troops, didn’tseem to faze most Israelis. The majority of the Israeli publicdoesn’t get too worked up about politics unless Israelis are beingkilled. A second major concern of theirs is that the country’srelations with the United States not be harmed.

There has been relatively little terror onNetanyahu’s watch. For all the tremors in the prime minister’srelations with the Clinton administration, they remain fundamentallystable. Since Netanyahu is giving most citizens what they want, andsince there is no viable alternative to him, the prime minister canlikely maneuver as he pleases on the second redeployment andafterward, with no serious political worries on the domesticfront.

If, however, the bloodshed crosses the border intoIsrael, and if Netanyahu finds himself frozen out by the UnitedStates — say, by an American withdrawal from the peace process –then he will no longer have such an easy life at home.