Barak’s Battles

Ehud Barak is going to have a hard time persuading the Israeli voters to endorse any deal with Syria that entails a withdrawal from most or all of the Golan Heights. The public is drifting away from the prime minister. So far.

On Monday night, more than 100,000 demonstrators gathered in Tel-Aviv’s Rabin Square for a rally sponsored by the Golan settlers under such slogans as “The people are with the Golan,” “The Golan is my home,” and — echoing American anti-draft chants during the Vietnam war — “Bill, no! We won’t go!” The platform party included two ministers in Barak’s coalition, Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky of the Russian immigrant Yisrael B’aliya, though the canny promoters kept all political leaders away from the microphone.

No one knows how many protesters there were. But there is no doubt that it was one of the biggest demonstrations ever massed by the Israeli right. And they were not all the usual, knitted-kippah suspects.

Michal Kafra hailed it in the tabloid Ma’ariv as “a wonderfully democratic” demonstration. “It broke several rigid codes of Israeli demonstration culture,” she wrote. “Religious and secular in the same square, clapping hands for Yitzhak Rabin, who had opposed withdrawal in the past, and ‘Hatikva’ played in waltz tempo, with subtitles appearing in Russian, and without even one sign with the word ‘Traitor.'”

Among the forest of Hebrew and English placards were dozens in Russian proclaiming: “We will say no to Assad.” Officials of the two new immigrant parties claimed that their people filled 560 of the 900 buses hired to bring supporters to Tel-Aviv. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the more right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, said the Russian voters, who brought Barak to power, would determine the result of the promised referendum.

It is no idle threat. The 600,000 Russian immigrant voters are the most volatile of Israel’s ethnic, religious and ideological constituencies. They swung back and forth in the last three elections, putting Rabin in power in 1992, Binyamin Netanyahu is 1996 and Ehud Barak in 1999.

According to Tel-Aviv University’s Peace Index, which has polled the nation month by month since the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians, more than 70 percent of the Russians oppose a Golan pullout, even for peace. Among those who voted for immigrant parties, the tally is closer to 78 percent.

“Russians,” the former Prisoner of Zion, Edouard Kuznetzov, explained in the Jerusalem Report magazine, “come from a heritage of a large empire and find the idea of giving land to anyone, let alone a sworn enemy, incomprehensible. Also, that Syria was a staunch ally of the Soviet state doesn’t help.”

Tamar Hermann, who directs the Tel-Aviv Peace Index, added that the Russians in general tended to be more hawkish towards the Arabs. They were more hostile to the very ideal of cultural integration into the “backward” Middle East. And they found Israel, even with the Golan, uncomfortably small.

“The resumption of the negotiations with Syria,” Nahum Barnea commented in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot the morning after the demonstration, “did not generate the same sweeping happiness that Sadat’s initiative did in 1977, nor the sense of historic justice that the Oslo accords engendered in many Israelis.”

A survey by veteran pollster Mina Tzemach in Yediot last Friday found 53 percent of Israelis against full withdrawal for a full peace, even if it also included withdrawal from South Lebanon. Only 41 percent were in favor, down from 45 percent in mid-December. Even for a partial withdrawal, support was down to 49 percent in favor, a drop of 10 percent in less than a month.

Apart from the Russians, Peace Index found Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox voters overwhelmingly opposed to any compromise with Syria. Among voters of the Sephardi Shas party, which Barak is wooing with the taxpayers’ money, 50 percent are against a Golan withdrawal. Only 20 percent are in favor, with another 20 percent saying they don’t know.

Hermann suggested that even if the Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, endorsed a deal with Syria, he would not deliver a majority among the party rank and file. About 50 percent of Shas voters, she said, were “traditional” rather than ultra-Orthodox. “Their hawkish, gut feelings won’t be transformed, even if the rabbi backs Barak.”

Although Netanyahu, when he was prime minister, is reported to have offered Hafez Assad a substantial Golan pullback, 70 percent of those who voted for him last year told the Peace Index they now opposed such a deal. Even among Barak’s One Israel voters, 35 percent were against full withdrawal.

The prime minister is in a double bind. He can’t go out and campaign for a “yes” vote until he knows the terms he will be offering. Will it be a full withdrawal? To which line? What will the security arrangements be? Will Israel still be free to draw on Golan water resources? Nor can he afford to reveal his bargaining hand to the Syrians while they’re still negotiating.

But the referendum battle is far from over. Barak is already dangling the prospect of bringing the boys home from Lebanon. The army is planning to cut the draft for young men by six months (from 3 years to 2 1/2 years).

Hermann doubted whether the public would take the bait. “They are not easily bought with sweets,” she argued. “They may become suspicious of his intentions, if he overdoes it.” Barak, she said, couldn’t control what happened in Lebanon.

The Tel-Aviv University political scientist expected him to concentrate instead on the security arrangements. “Israelis,” she added, “are not interested in eating hummus in Damascus. Security is the only thing people care about these days.”

A credible security deal, Hermann concluded, would have a major impact. “If Barak convinces the public that he made a good deal on security,” she predicted, “he will win a big majority.”