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Ha'aretz, Sunday, January 3, 1999

Would you send your kid to this peace camp?

By Gideon Levy


A king was born unto the Israeli peace camp over the weekend. In a television interview, MK Yossi Beilin (Labor), who is himself a worthy candidate to lead that camp, declared that "the peace camp has a leader, and his name is Ehud Barak.".Coming from Beilin, a preeminent statesman of Labor, that pronouncement is cause for more than a little puzzlement. Ehud Barak? The head of the peace camp? The explanation must be that with elections just around the corner, Beilin pledged his allegiance to his party's leader a bit too cogently. But Beilin's declaration was not a lone voice in what is known as the Israeli left; Meretz leader MK Yossi Sarid has also proclaimed his support for Barak.

Someone who abstained in the Knesset vote on the Oslo accords; who religiously shuns meetings with Palestinians; whose soul, he has said, pines for the hills to the east of his home in Kohav Yair, a community located literally on top of the 1967 Green Line; who spoke of the West Bank settlements of Ofra and Beit El in terms of an "eternal presence" - this is the person who is suddenly being touted as a leader by key figures in the peace camp.

Even if they are guided by electoral considerations it is difficult to grasp their reasoning, particularly when a far more committed Oslo supporter than Barak - Amnon Lipkin-Shahak - has yet to speak his piece and has at his side a true believer in human rights in the form of MK Dan Meridor.

In fact, it is very doubtful that Israel has a genuine peace camp at all, and in any event Ehud Barak is certainly not the person to lead it. Since doffing his chief-of-staff uniform he has said or done nothing that would qualify him for his new title. Sometimes he appears not to have internalized the shift - albeit relatively small - that has occurred in our relations with the Palestinians; he seems to perceive them as potential enemies, as during his lengthy military service.

The hands are frequently the hands of Barak but the voice is Netanyahu's. Withdrawal from Lebanon, so ardently espoused by Beilin? On that issue Barak, as he is so often, is in agreement with Netanyahu. Ditto regarding the Golan Heights. Negotiations with the Palestinians? There are some minor differences - which emerged when, wonder of wonders, Barak tried to outflank Netanyahu from the right.

Beginning with the original and unforgivable sin of declining to support Oslo, and ranging through his criticism of Netanyahu on the eve of the Wye accord, Barak is doing everything he can to prove that he is not a "leftist," as he was branded by Netanyahu. And he is definitely succeeding. No wonder, then, that virtually the entire Palestinian leadership is looking to Shahak. Barak, who so conspicuously refuses to meet with Palestinians, is anathema to the Palestinian Authority.

This probably pleases Barak no end: if Palestinians expect certain things of a candidate, this is still taken as a sign of weakness in Israel. But doesn't the advantage really lie with a candidate whom the Palestinians trust and who stirs hope in their hearts? Would it not be more appropriate if Barak, the candidate for leadership of the "peace camp," were seen in that light by the Palestinians too? Would a hair fall from his security-oriented head if he were to convey a message that under his leadership peace can be more easily achieved thanks to his flexibility?

Sometimes he uses expressions that recall the old-style, wrongheaded pronouncements of the Labor Party; sometimes he seems to evoke an even more distant past. His declaration about the "eternal" existence of Ofra and Beit El was even moldier than the formulations of the previous Labor Party platform - it was a veritable fossil left over from the days of the Galili-Dayan-Golda Meir triumvirate.

Barak's assertion that the settlements are a "great enterprise" should have been enough to spark resistance. His perception has always been that relations with the Palestinians are a zero-sum game: their losses are our gains. When the United States proposed, during the exhausting talks on the second further redeployment, an Israeli pullback of 13.1 percent, Barak maintained his ambiguous approach and did not support Washington. When asked about this, he replied with his characteristic retail-minded stance, "How will it look if I support 13.1 percent and Arafat finally agrees to accept 12.4 percent?"

He has often flayed Netanyahu for bringing about the establishment of a Palestinian state, while all along we were under the impression that Labor has already condoned its establishment. He has hardly met with Arafat, and the price he will pay in the elections for keeping his distance from Israel's Arab population will far outweigh the imaginary profit he hopes to reap in the center and toward the right. It's worth listening to what Arab MKs have to say about him.

Ehud Barak is a throwback. Apart from a spate of general utterances about peace and security, he has not voiced one original - not to mention daring - political-diplomatic idea so far. No pointless demolition of a home in the West Bank has moved him to respond, no tormenting of Palestinians has stirred his interest. Has anyone heard him refer to the release of Palestinian prisoners, for example? Is he for? Against?

His aides will tell you that he is saving these issues for after the elections - the usual ploy in these parts. The problem is that such ploys could cost him the election. Without a message that promises a genuine change after Netanyahu he has no chance of winning the confidence of those voters who want peace - the composition of his close circle will not be enough to attract them. And for those voters who want peace, the emerging alternative in the center of the political map looks a bit more promising


(c) copyright 1998 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved


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