Editor’s Notes: Crunch time for Barak

By David Horovitz January 18, 2008

Burned by Arafat in 2000, the Labor leader has never shared Olmert’s optimism this time around

Less than two weeks before the Winograd Committee delivers its final report, and with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition rocked this week by the departure of Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu and growing rumblings of discontent from Shas, it’s almost crunch time for Labor and its leader Ehud Barak.

Needless to say, Barak believes he would make a far better prime minister than Olmert. But though never notably short of confidence, he also doubts his chances of attaining the post should he bring down the government and force new elections prematurely.

A whole host of concerns are pushing Barak in contradictory directions. For instance, he fiercely shares the sense already made overwhelmingly plain in the Winograd Committee’s interim report last April that Olmert handled the war with Hizbullah abysmally and must be held responsible. But he also doubts that Israel’s wider interests would be best served by a general election campaign over the coming months, distracting Israel’s attention from Iran’s nuclear program, Hizbullah’s ongoing recovery, the peace-or-war dilemmas posed by Syria and, most urgently, the escalating rocket attacks from Gaza. Not to mention President George W. Bush’s one-year “timetable” for a peace accord.

The question, for Barak, is how to balance the conflicting needs for accountability from Olmert and stability for Israel’s governance.

Furthermore, ideologically, Barak and Labor feel they ought to be bolstering a government that is earnestly seeking to achieve an accommodation with the Palestinians. But countering that is the fact that many in Labor, while emphatically still regarding themselves as the “peace party,” don’t believe for a minute that the Annapolis process can work and fear it will prove counterproductive.

Barak, whose own coalition collapsed as he sought in vain to reach a permanent accord with Yasser Arafat in the dying months of the Clinton presidency, stands firmly among the skeptics – which also makes him vulnerable to assertions from his more dovish colleagues, like Ami Ayalon and Amir Peretz, that he is turning Labor into an obstacle to progress and rendering Kadima the “peace party” instead.

BARAK CERTAINLY wouldn’t put it quite like this, but his concern over the Annapolis process stems from the fear that Olmert is letting history repeat itself dangerously by failing to heed the lessons of Camp David 2000. The parallels are not so much eerie as dismal and they point to a degree of prime ministerial naivety and recklessness that was troubling enough first time around under Barak, but is unforgivable a second time under Olmert.

Although Barak has argued passionately that his “achievement” in 2000 lay in exposing the myth of Arafat as a peace partner, Clinton only convened that Camp David retreat in the first place because Barak argued that peace was tantalizingly close, and might be secured with intensive American presidential intervention. Similarly, in the last few months, Olmert became persuaded, on the strength of several pleasant one-on-one exchanges with Mahmoud Abbas, that the elements of compromise were falling into place and that conditions were ripe for a permanent accord.

The prime minister, it is understood, was so encouraged by the content of those face-to-face discussions that he spelled out for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during one of her visits here the specific positions he and Abbas had expressed, and encouraged her to travel to Ramallah and hear first hand from the Palestinian Authority president that the two leaders were indeed on the same page. Hardly surprisingly, given the secretary’s determination to foster an accord, she reported back positively, and the Annapolis express was on its way.

As this column has previously reported, however, Olmert was somewhat belatedly to discover that the conciliatory positions Abbas was adopting in the nonbinding comfort of his conversations with the prime minister were, for whatever reason, not being replicated in the substantive talks between the two teams of negotiators. Burned by Arafat in 2000, Barak never shared Olmert’s optimism this time around.

The notion that the Annapolis gathering could mark not the mere restart of substantive talks, but the actual crowning of the negotiating process – complete with the dramatic signing of some kind of framework accord – was seriously entertained for a time both by the Americans and the Israelis. But Barak recognized from the start that it was ridiculous. Indeed, he doubted that the Palestinians would even sign on to a substantive declaration of principles – skepticism that proved well founded when, minutes before Bush was supposed to deliver it to the watching world, the Palestinian leadership was still balking at some of the content of a much watered-down declaration.

In fact, although they grudgingly assented to the text at the very last minute, it has been suggested to me, astonishingly, that the document Bush read out was never formally signed.

Barak does not regard the road map framework as problem free, but he is understood to consider the departure from it – the Annapolis skip over the Palestinian requirement in Phase One of that framework to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism – to be a mistake, no matter how often Bush, Olmert, et al insist that no permanent accord will be implemented until the security conditions allow. He is also said to be unimpressed by Olmert’s insistent professions of profound friendships with Hosni Mubarak, Vladimir Putin and the other world leaders cited by the prime minister in his interview with this newspaper last month. But what he sees as most troubling is the Olmert-Bush relationship itself – and the sense that the prime minister overestimates both the significance of warm presidential hugs and embraces, and the president’s internalization of essential Israeli security needs.

His main coalition partner does not doubt either Olmert’s intelligence or his political smarts, but he is understood to fear Olmert’s potential for recklessness. Presumably, this concern is primarily a product of the immediate, inadequately considered resort to war against Hizbullah a year and a half ago. But it was likely reinforced by an initial readiness for a strike against Syria that would have taken place earlier, and with less preparation, than the air raid finally executed on September 6.

And there is perceived recklessness, too, of course, in the accelerated effort to achieve a peace accord in Bush’s final year. This is an effort that is being pursued with a Palestinian leadership that has yet to even begin to create an atmosphere among its own people that would enable Abbas to justify dramatic compromise. It is an effort championed by a secretary of state who last month reportedly spoke of parallels between her childhood in the segregated American South and the plight of the Palestinians and who, much as others might not want to believe it, most certainly speaks for her president. It is an effort that Bush is now repeatedly stressing he expects to pay off, whose success he evidently regards as central to his legacy, and in whose cause he is looking expectantly to his friend Olmert.

While the prime minister and his aides continue to highlight Bush’s April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon (in which the president declared: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949″) as proof that the US government will stand with Israel when it seeks to retain significant settlement blocs under that anticipated accord.

Barak is said to be much less confident. The idea that the letter represents a water-tight guarantee of American support, indeed, is hardly borne out by the text, which goes on to state with diplomatic care that border adjustments to reflect the changed realities will have to be “mutually agreed” by the two sides. Nor is it borne out by any of the comments Bush made on his recent visit. Presumably the phrase “settlement blocs” falls within even a somewhat inarticulate president’s vocabulary, yet he chose not to employ it, opting instead to talk firmly about the need for an “end to the occupation” and vaguely about border adjustments by mutual consent “to reflect current realities.”

Meanwhile, at his briefings for the travelling American press corps, Bush’s National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley seemed to strenuously play down the significance of the 2004 letter. “That letter was issued now almost four years ago…,” Hadley said at one point. “It had an impact in April of 2004, at the time it was issued – as a way of giving support to prime minister Sharon when he did a very bold thing, which was to decide to disengage from Gaza. And it was an effort to show where some bold step like that might at some point lead. But it was really issued at the time of the Gaza disengagement…”

And in her pre-trip interview with The Jerusalem Post, of course, Rice took umbrage at construction not only in the West Bank, but also at Har Homa, in what Israel considers sovereign Jerusalem, describing it as “a settlement that the US has opposed from the very beginning.”

SO IF, in Barak’s conception, Olmert is a smart and shrewd politician but a potentially reckless prime minister, what is the Labor leader going to do about it?

One possible scenario, post-Winograd, is that he will call on Kadima to replace Olmert from within, and threaten to push for early elections if this doesn’t happen inside a few weeks. But that raises the question of which would-be Kadima leader might prevail – the inexperienced Tzipi Livni, the so-ambitious Meir Sheetrit or, perhaps most likely, Shaul Mofaz, one of Barak’s successors as chief of staff and a man he might be uncomfortable reporting to rather than bossing.

Alternatively, Barak might make a great play of seeking Olmert’s ouster but in practice take steps that he knows would postpone the day of reckoning – backing no-confidence motions that lack a majority, say, or pushing legislation for new elections that he can be assured will move only slowly through the Knesset. That way the prime minister would get to hang on to his job for a while longer, and look increasingly bad amid the likely post-Winograd uproar, while Barak remained in the Defense Ministry, building his national leadership credentials and, he would hope, bolstering his chances of ultimately defeating Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu.

Some might call that dirty politics. Others would doubtless present it as finding a balance between the conflicting needs of accountability and stability.

© The Jerusalem Post