Barak’s “Mandate”

It’s hard to believe it was only a year ago that people were celebrating the supposed mandate won by Ehud Barak in the Israeli election. Sure he crushed Bibi Netanyahu, but his party won a scant 26 seats and it was clear to anyone with a modicum of understanding of Israeli politics that the fragile coalition he was forced to construct, depending especially on the Shas party, would be unable to make the tough decisions necessary for a final settlement with the Palestinians. So why is everyone acting surprised that Barak is coming to the summit in Washington with virtually no support to make a deal?

Barak pounded his chest this week and declared that he didn’t need support, he’d make a deal if he only had the backing of a fraction of his cabinet and a quarter of the Knesset. This was an example of both Barak’s strength and weakness. A former head of the Mossad, and one of Barak’s mentors, said recently that Barak is very smart and very decisive, but his problem is that he often refuses to listen to anyone.

Decisiveness, however, is just what is needed right now. Barak needs to go to Camp David and make the deal that’s been sitting on the table since 1967. Redraw the map so Israel’s borders run just beyond the green line and incorporate all the border settlements, insist on the right of Jews to live in Palestine, grant the Palestinians a capital in Abu Dis and accept the right of Palestinians to return to the Palestinian state.

Let me digress for a moment about the last point. Most people have finally come around to accepting the idea that the Palestinians will have their capital in a suburb of Jerusalem, but there is still resistance to acknowledging any right of Palestinian return. After all, no Palestinian can legitimately be called a refugee. They could have been resettled in the Arab nations where they now live decades ago. It didn’t happen. Even if it had, however, it would have been hard for Jews to justify denying the Palestinians a right to return when the sine qua non of the Zionist movement was the right of free immigration to Palestine.

Israel doesn’t want millions of Palestinians to return to the region and flood the tiny Palestinian Authority, but Yasir Arafat doesn’t want this either. As it is, he will have a difficult time feeding, employing and housing the two million or so Palestinians living in his state. The Arab states will certainly want to dump their Palestinians on him, and that may be the biggest problem. It is hard to imagine any Palestinian living in any Western country having the slightest interest in moving to the Third World of Palestine. Ideally, Barak will get Arafat to agree to allowing a set number of refugees into Palestine in exchange for recognizing the right of return. In reality, once Palestine is an independent state, Israel will have no say in the matter anyway.

Yitzhak Rabin would have adopted the same attitude as Barak. He was unilaterally withdrawing to the ‘67 lines. Of course, it is possible that Arafat will refuse to take “yes” for an answer and hold out for some unreasonable concessions, such as some authority over the Old City. This is where Clinton has to sit on Arafat and tell him to be satisfied with Barak’s offer of 94% of the West Bank and the promise of billions of dollars of U.S. and international aid.

The Knesset could reject the deal Barak makes, but would it? After a triumphal signing ceremony on the White House lawn and the U.S. and the rest of the world praising Barak to the skies for finally ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, would a majority of politicians wreck the deal? I don’t think so. Just as I don’t believe, despite all the polls and public opposition, a treaty with Syria would be rejected after it was signed, even if it included the complete withdrawal from the Golan Heights. It’s easy to oppose proposals, it’s a different matter altogether when the other side has finally accepted your terms.

And what of the opposition of people within Barak’s own cabinet, notably Natan Sharansky? Well, with all due respect, Sharansky’s views on this subject should not be given the importance some people – mainly opponents of the process anyway – are attaching to them. Sharansky is a credible, respected leader, but, unlike Barak, his hero status is not based on fighting in wars for Israel. He is not an authority in any way, shape or form on security issues. He expresses the concerns shared by most Israelis and diaspora Jews, but the truth is the process with the Palestinians is bound to be uncomfortable. Only the messianic believe true peace will come from an agreement, but, as that former Mossad director (he was also a former head of military intelligence and most of the major IDF commands) also said, a deal is still preferable to the status quo.

This summit is the best chance of achieving a final settlement for the foreseeable future. Clinton is desperate to accomplish something historic, beyond being impeached; Barak needs to prove he knows what’s best and can deliver a deal and Arafat has to finally deliver independence to his people with the political and financial backing of the United States.