November 15, 2019

Barak at Camp David

There is a sense at this moment that “time has stopped.” That all political voices have become silent, in Israel no less than in the United States, while Messrs. Arafat, Barak and Clinton struggle over language, issues and principles in an effort to reach a peace agreement.

It is, of course, illusory. The political opposition in Israel is busy planning on just how to bring down Prime Minister Barak. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s critics on the left and the right are looking eagerly for the faintest misstep – yielding too much, yielding anything – on his part. Indeed, Palestinian refugees staged a march on the West Bank this week imploring Arafat to stand up for their interests.

Meanwhile, American Jewish leaders have already begun to line up for and against Israel’s prime minister. His critics here boldly took the offensive last week, denouncing Mr. Barak’s presence at Camp David with full-page ads in major newspapers. One of the signatories was Israel Bonds national campaign chair Irwin Hochberg. Israel Bonds is “a consensus pro-Israel organization,” argued David Twersky, editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News, and while Hochberg is certainly free to express his opinion as a citizen, he does not have that luxury as head of a major pro-Israel organization. By Wednesday, American supporters of Barak’s peace efforts countered with a full-page ad in The New York Times. Sixty-five of the signatures came from California, most of them from Los Angeles. (In the interest of full disclosure, one of them belonged to the publisher of this paper. )

Mr. Barak appears to be “going for broke” at Camp David. More than a year ago he was elected head of state by 56 percent of Israel’s voters. They cast their ballots for the man, not for a political party; and so his election was the result of a popular, direct vote. His campaign was based on a pledge to secure a negotiated peace with the Palestinians.

But then came the delicate task of forming a government; in this instance a coalition of many parties, left, center and right; religious and secular. On the eve of the Camp David meetings, that coalition has unraveled as party leaders have defected from his cabinet. They disapproved of his journeying to the U.S. to meet with Mr. Arafat and Bill Clinton. Israel’s prime minister now finds himself without a majority in the Knesset. He has been able to survive a vote of no confidence by the legislature only because his opponents could not secure 61 votes – the required one more than half of the 120 member chamber.

Undaunted, Barak is here pursuing peace negotiations – -His tack now is to appeal directly to Israel’s voters over the heads of the political parties and their leaders. To prevail, he must return with an agreement that satisfies the broad populace: Meaning that he carries guarantees for their security while moving forward to a final peace with the Palestinians. Almost anything less is likely to topple his government and lead to new elections.

Given the main issues – settling the claims and language about who has sovereignty over Jerusalem; determining the territorial borders along with the fate of Israel’s settlers; concluding an agreement over the rights of Palestine refugees – Barak has at best a long shot of prevailing. He has promised the voters that he will stand fast on Jerusalem; that it will remain one city under Israel control. And he has pledged that most Israeli settlers who wish to stay in the West Bank will be able to reside there under Jewish (i.e. Israeli) authority. Neither one of these assertions is acceptable to Arafat or the PLO.

The opposition party leaders in Israel – on the right, among the religious parties, Mr. Sharansky’s Russian followers, among others – are dismissive of these promises. Words to deceive us by, they say. He should not have journeyed to America. On his return, they are determined to bring him down.

The prime minister’s critics in the U.S. have been mobilizing for some time now. They are loud and well-organized and, as a lobby group, have made inroads into the U.S. political system. They have appealed partly to anti-Clinton Republicans in Congress, and to those Democrats either with strong Orthodox constituencies or with backing from politically conservative Jews whose distrust and dislike of the Palestinians is all consuming.

American Jews who support the peace process are more numerous than the opposition. But they are not engaged in conflict; or in challenging Israel’s head of state. In short, they do not generate as much, or as vivid, press coverage.

Mr. Barak’s strategy, if he wishes to achieve a peace agreement with the PLO, would seem to suggest that he hold himself above party politics in Israel, and outside Jewish organizational politics in the U.S. President Clinton is lending him some assistance by, if nothing else, maintaining a news blackout at Camp David, which is only 60 miles north of the White House. In that way, the participants, Barak and Arafat, will presumably be free of the daily political pressure and reactions to each turn or bargaining chip put forward in the negotiations.

There is a certain bold grandeur to Mr. Barak’s high-wire commitment. His goal – a just and honorable peace for each side – seems admirable. And the course that he is pursuing is one that we hope will prevail, and that will, in the process, insure a better life for both Israelis and Palestinians.