The Propitious Rise of Israel’s little Napoleon

Avi Shlaim on why peace with Syria and the Palestinians is getting closer

Ehud Barak’s landslide victory in the general election of 17 May marked the beginning of a new era in Israeli politics. The election was critical for the future shape of the country’s chronically divided society as well as for its relations with the Arab world. Under the reformed electoral system, each voter casts two ballots – one for the prime minister and one for the parties to be represented in the 120-seat Knesset. In the contest for the premiership Barak defeated Binyamin Netanyahu by 56 to 44 per cent and his victory has produced a political earthquake comparable to the upheaval of 1977, when the Likud swept to power under Menachem Begin. Some Israelis saw it as the sunrise, after three dark and terrible years of Likud rule.

The election campaign, one of the most vitriolic in Israel’s history, highlighted the growing animosity between secular and religious Jews, immigrants and veterans, Jews and Arabs, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. Netanyahu had greatly exacerbated these divisions by his paranoid personal style, by his duplicity and deviousness, and by exploiting the prejudices and resentments of the various groups for his own ends. Along the way he alienated most of his senior colleagues and all but destroyed his party. Barak, by contrast, set out to heal wounds, to bridge the gap between the different sub-cultures, and to reunite the nation. His aim was to capture the middle ground and to this end he reinvented the Labour Party as One Israel, jettisoning much of its ideology and reaching out to groups traditionally ignored by the Ashkenazi élite.

The underlying question was whether Israel was going to become a liberal, Western-orientated society or succumb to the growing influence of the fundamentalists. Initially, the election results seemed to represent a triumph of the secular Left over the reactionary Right. But this ignores the fact that both major parties did badly. Likud dropped from 32 seats in the Knesset to 19, while the Labour Party, in its new guise as One Israel, dropped from 34 to 26. It also ignores the success of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party, composed largely of poorer Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, which now has 17 seats, compared to ten in 1996. Many secular Israelis are deeply disturbed by the growth in the power of Shas, whose leader Aryeh Deri was recently sentenced to four years in prison on charges of bribery and corruption.

Direct election of the Prime Minister was first introduced in 1996 in order to increase the leader’s power and reduce that of the smaller parties, but the result has been a decline in the power of the main parties and a proliferation of slates representing narrow interests. This year, 15 parties gained representation in the Knesset. The secular left-wing party Meretz, Labour’s natural ally in government, won ten seats. Israel B’aliyah, a Russian immigrants’ party led by Nathan Sharansky, won six. Shinui, an assertively secular liberal party, won six seats on an anti-Orthodox ticket. A new Centre Party, led by Yitzhak Mordechai, a defector from the Likud, also won six. The splintered Knesset complicated the task of forming a governing coalition, although Barak himself was in a relatively strong position to mould a coalition to suit his agenda.

The scale of Barak’s victory, exceeding all expectations, indicated a change in the mood of the nation, in favour of reaching a permanent peace settlement with the Palestinians by granting them a state on land occupied by Israel since 1967. Likud’s duplicitous policy of pretending to accept the Oslo Accords while doing everything to undermine them was rejected by the electorate. During the campaign Barak pledged to honour all previous agreements with the Palestinian Authority but insisted that Israel would not withdraw to the 1967 borders, that the whole of Jerusalem would remain under Israeli control, and that large blocs of Jewish settlement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would be preserved. These were his ‘red lines’. He promised to restart the stalled talks with Syria and to reach within a year a peace deal that would include an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. The difference between Barak and Netanyahu was the difference between a tough negotiator and a non-negotiator. A majority of Israelis had voted for the tough negotiator.

Despite his sweeping victory, it took Barak some fifty days to form a government that would command a majority in the Knesset. He could have simplified the task, and reduced the cost in concessions to potential coalition partners, by settling for a narrow majority. But he wanted a government which would be more representative, more stable, and afford him more latitude in the conduct of foreign policy. From the experience of Yitzhak Rabin, his mentor, and Netanyahu, he had learnt that the country cannot be governed when only half of the people are on your side. He therefore brought on board, in addition to Meretz and Israel B’aliyah, the three Orthodox parties – which involved sacrificing some of Labour’s domestic agenda.

Barak’s bid for national unity did not, however, include Israel’s one million Arabs, who constitute a sixth of the population. Having won 94 per cent of the Arab vote, he studiously ignored the three Arab parties when it came to forming a government. They had been keen to join the Government, so as to mark a new chapter in their relations with the Jews. They have a combined strength of ten seats, and would have given unequivocal support to a programme of equality at home and peace abroad. Barak, however, spurned their advances because he wanted to have a ‘Jewish majority’ behind him in handing over land to the Arabs. On 6 July, he stood at the podium and announced that he had secured the support of 75 of the 120 Parliamentarians: Israel’s largest ever peace-making government was born.

The size and composition of Barak’s Cabinet reflects his intention to keep the reins of power in his own hands. By law the number of ministers is limited to 18, but Barak obtained special legislative approval for the appointment of five additional ministers. He prides himself on being a meritocrat but his Cabinet contains its fair share of mediocrities and time-servers. Barak himself assumed the crucially important defence portfolio in addition to the premiership, and gave foreign affairs to David Levy, who broke away from the Likud to join the One Israel alliance. A former construction worker of Moroccan origin, Levy speaks no English and it was no doubt thought that his notorious indolence would allow Barak the latitude he wanted to conduct his own foreign policy. Senior party colleagues were appointed to ministries that would restrict their scope for independent diplomatic initiatives. Shimon Peres became Minister for Regional Co-Operation and another leading dove, Yossi Beilin, architect of the Oslo Accords, Minister of Justice. The overall balance between hawks and doves, and between secular liberals and the representatives of the religious parties, further enhanced the Prime Minister’s freedom of action. As one observer remarked, Barak formed a large cabinet precisely because he didn’t need a cabinet at all.

For a relative political novice, Barak’s rise to power has been remarkably swift, his skills as a military strategist having served him well on Israel’s treacherous political terrain. He was born in 1942 in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, enlisted in the Defence Forces at the age of 17 and rose to command the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, the equivalent of the SAS. As a commando leader he displayed originality and creativity as well as physical courage, planning and carrying out special operations, including assassinations and hostage-rescues, which helped to cultivate the myth of invincibility that surrounded the IDF. He rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming an armoured division commander, head of Central Command, director of Military Intelligence and, in 1991, Chief of the General Staff. In between, Barak also found time to get a BSc from the Hebrew University and an MSc from Stanford. He retired from the Army in 1995, served briefly as Interior Minister until Rabin’s assassination and then as Foreign Minister under Shimon Peres. Not long after Peres’s defeat at the polls, Barak elbowed him out of the way.

In the course of his military career, Barak also acquired a few habits that do not go down well in a parliamentary democracy. He is authoritarian, inflexible and secretive. He was referred to as ‘little Napoleon’ in his élite army unit, and his party colleagues have had little difficulty in understanding why. In any case, the name seems to have stuck. Quite apart from everything else, the physical resemblance is strong, Barak being short and well built, like a clenched fist.

Fundamentally, however, he is an incongruous crossbreed between hawk and dove, bang in the middle of the political spectrum. The basic difference between Likud and Labour in the aftermath of the 1967 war lay in their attitudes to the West Bank. Likud saw the West Bank – Judea and Samaria in its terminology – as an integral part of the Land of Israel; Labour’s attitude was largely shaped by security considerations, which pointed in the direction of territorial compromise. But the Netanyahu Government decided to forgo doctrinal purity by handing over small parcels of territory, notably in Hebron, to the Palestinian Authority, while there have always been many people in the Labour Party with a strong ideological and emotional attachment to the land of their Biblical ancestors.

Ehud Barak is one of them. In the course of a talk to students in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, in May 1998, he put his nationalist worldview with great clarity: ‘I live in Kochav Ya’ir, fifty metres from the Green Line’ (the pre-1967 border with Jordan).

When I open my eyes in the morning and look to the east, I see hills and mountains. It is the Land of Israel. We do not disagree on the connection to the Land of Israel, or to the holy sites in which the People of Israel came into being, or to the places where our nation’s spirit was created ... The question is not the connection. The disagreement concerns the political acts that are required, what needs to be done to ensure the people’s existence, security and spiritual wellbeing.

Barak was prepared to relinquish parts of the West Bank not because he doubted that the people of Israel have a historic right to the whole Land of Israel but because he wanted ‘to increase the chances of creating a stable equilibrium between us and the Palestinians that will protect both of our vital interests’.

Barak feels that the chances of achieving that equilibrium are good. He has a keen appreciation of his country’s military power and of the advantages it confers in negotiations with its Arab neighbours. In contrast to Netanyahu, he is not fixated on the idea of Israel being surrounded by predators. In an interview published in Ha’aretz on 18 June, he said: ‘Netanyahu likened us to a carp among barracudas in an aquarium. I say that we are like an enlightened killer whale ... it does not attack and devour for no reason.’

Essentially, Barak is what Israelis call a bitkhonist – a security-ist. He sees foreign relations, both within the region and outside it, through the prism of the country’s security needs. Comprehensive peace in the Middle East is his ultimate goal but security must take precedence. During the election campaign, he presented himself as the heir to Rabin, a soldier who spent years of his life fighting the Arabs and then switched to making peace. He promised to follow in Rabin’s footsteps down the peace path but with caution, governing as he had campaigned, as the heir to Rabin, the soldier-statesman, not to Shimon Peres, the poet-philosopher. Peres’s vision of the New Middle East, based on the model of the European Union, he dismissed as pie in the sky.

The real question was whether Barak would be as successful at making peace with the Arabs as he had been at fighting them. His reservations about the Oslo Accords were well known. As Chief of Staff he had been critical of the original agreement’s security provisions. Two years later, in September 1995, when he was Minister of the Interior in Rabin’s Cabinet, he abstained in the vote on Oslo II on the grounds that it would place too much territory in Palestinian hands before the start of the final-status talks. The entire Oslo process is based on the idea of a gradual and controlled Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Barak’s primary concern is that this process puts the onus on Israel to part in successive stages with real assets, especially land, in return for mere promises about future relations with the Palestinians.

In his inaugural speech before the Knesset, on 6 July, Barak was short on specifics but promised to work simultaneously for peace with all Israel’s Arab neighbours. He told MPs that it was equally important to make peace with the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Palestinians. ‘If we don’t place peace on all four pillars, peace will be unstable.’ A peace treaty with Egypt was signed in 1979 and one with Jordan in 1994, which leaves Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians. On many occasions in the past, Barak had expressed a clear preference for taking Syria first, given that Syria is a military power whereas the Palestinians are not. In the interview with Ha’aretz he elaborated: ‘The Syrians have seven hundred war planes, four thousand tanks, 2500 artillery pieces and surface-to-surface missiles that are neatly organised and can cover the country with nerve gas. The Palestinians are the source of legitimacy for the continuation of the conflict, but they are the weakest of all our adversaries. As a military threat they are ludicrous.’

The Palestinians could be forgiven for inferring from this and many similar statements that the new Prime Minister was likely to be a hare on the Syrian track, but a snail on the Palestinian. In fact, Barak was anxious to meet President Clinton before meeting any of the Arab leaders and it was Clinton who persuaded him to reverse the order. The result was a series of courtesy visits to President Mubarak in Egypt, King Abdullah II in Jordan, and Yasser Arafat at the Gaza border. Having thus touched base with local leaders, Barak flew to Washington in mid-July for a week of intensive talks, which included two meetings with Clinton. His aim was to cement the US-Israel special relationship, bruised and battered by his predecessor.

In Washington, Barak scored his first major diplomatic success. Clinton repeated the promise he had made to Rabin: to minimise the risks that Israel would have to take on in order to achieve ‘a historic reconciliation in the Middle East’. Clinton also reiterated the US commitment to maintaining the IDF’s qualitative edge over neighbouring armies and to enhancing Israel’s ability to deter and defend itself against any threat or combination of threats. American military assistance was to be increased, with the additional sums being devoted mainly to the fight against terrorism and against weapons of mass destruction. A special grant of $1.2 billion was allocated to help Israel meet the cost of implementing the Wye River Accord which Clinton had helped to broker in October 1998.

Clinton coupled his announcement of increased levels of aid with a call on President Asad to seize the ‘golden opportunity’ to renew the peace process. Asad could hardly have been unaware of the opportunity presented by the emergence of the new Government in Jerusalem. He was the Minister of Defence in June 1967, when Syria lost the Golan Heights, and he remains committed to the recovery in full of this strategically and symbolically important territory. Shortly after the 1973 war, he announced that he was interested in peace with Israel and he has adhered to this policy down to the present – a full peace in return for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The negotiations with Syria were on the verge of a breakthrough when Rabin was killed by a Jewish fanatic bent on derailing the peace process. Rabin had been prepared to accept the principle of full Syrian sovereignty over the Golan but there was no agreement on other contentious issues, of which normalisation and security arrangements are the most important. Peres suspended the negotiations in March 1996, in response to a spate of suicide bombs inside Israel, and they remained suspended during Netanyahu’s tenure. The Syrians have been willing all along to resume the negotiations at the point at which they had been broken off.

For different reasons Asad and Barak now need to break the stalemate. Asad, who is 69 and in poor health, is grooming his younger son Bashar for the succession and does not wish to leave behind this piece of unfinished business. Barak needs Syria to make good the promise at the heart of his election campaign: the withdrawal of the IDF from southern Lebanon; for without the approval of Damascus, the Government in Beirut cannot give Israel any guarantees on border security. Both leaders have political dominance in their countries, both are cautious and pragmatic military men, both know all the ins and outs of previous negotiations, yet both have publicly concluded that the way to a settlement is open.

The signals from both Jerusalem and Damascus have given grounds for optimism. Each leader has spoken positively about the other. Patrick Seale, the leading Western expert on Syria, interviewed both Asad and Barak and reported their comments in the Times on 24 June. For an Israeli leader to praise Syria’s leader as a man who had made his country strong, independent and self-confident was strange enough. For President Asad to have called the Prime Minister-elect a ‘strong and honest’ man who could deliver peace with Syria was extraordinary. Seale was amused to note that Barak likes to doodle when speaking, illustrating his thoughts with little drawings – he drew an arch to illustrate his notion of peace, with a Syrian keystone. An opportunity for a ‘peace of the brave’ clearly exists. Yet each leader has his own stiff terms and the road to peace is likely to be stony.

One result of Barak’s peace overtures to Syria has been to feed Palestinian fears of ending up stateless losers in a grand bargain between states. Arafat and his colleagues succeeded in persuading the Governments of Rabin and Peres that the Palestinian problem is at the heart of the Arab-Israel conflict and that without a settlement with the Palestinians the wider peace process could not go forward. Rabin and Peres knew when they signed the Oslo Accords that the end of the transition period would most probably see an independent Palestinian state. Netanyahu, on the other hand, did everything in his power to arrest the process and remained unalterably opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The Palestinians see Barak as a great improvement on his predecessor but they still have serious misgivings about him. In the past, Barak always kept his distance from Arafat and declined to treat him as a genuine partner on the road to peace. As Prime Minister-elect he did nothing to stop the land grabs carried out by the Jewish settlers on the West Bank. Nor did he put a stop to the cruel policy of demolishing Arab houses in east Jerusalem that had been built without a legal permit while at the same time allowing the IDF to continue protecting illegal building by militant right-wing settlers.

Barak does not deny that the Palestinian problem is at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but solving it would involve a difficult and dangerous open-heart operation which he is not yet ready to undertake. He is prepared to consider the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the long term, but he would prefer a Palestinian confederation with Jordan. ‘An absolutely sovereign Palestinian state will very much complicate the chance for an agreement,’ he has argued.

It will not produce an existential threat to Israel but rather create a threat of irredentism, among other problems ... The issue of two states for two peoples is not simple. Two real states west of the Jordan River is a problem. In my opinion, our demand must be for a Palestinian entity that is less than a state, and we must hope that over time, in a natural fashion, this entity will form a confederation with Jordan.

This falls a long way short of Palestinian aspirations. It was for this reason, among others, that Barak’s first concrete proposal for resuming the peace process was a non-starter. He wanted to skip the Wye River Accord and move directly to final-status talks. Under the Accord, which was unilaterally suspended by Netanyahu because of the opposition to it of his religious-nationalist partners, Israel is to turn over another 11 per cent of the West Bank to Palestinian control and open a ‘safe passage’ to allow travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Barak was concerned that more troop withdrawals would leave Jewish settlements in the West Bank isolated and vulnerable to terror attacks which would destabilise his Government. He tried to persuade Arafat that implementing all the handovers of land, in one final swoop, would be in the interests of both sides. Arafat, however, took the view that all the outstanding obligations in the Wye River Accord must be fulfilled before moving to the final-stage negotiations. Barak reluctantly agreed.

The negotiations on the final status of the territories, which were due to be completed by 4 May this year, have not even started. Some highly sensitive issues – the status of Jerusalem, the right of return of the 1948 refugees, the future of the Jewish settlements, and the borders of the Palestinian entity – are still to be tackled. Of these, the most sensitive for Israel is the first. The official position claims exclusive Jewish political sovereignty over the whole of Greater Jerusalem. This position is backed by a very broad national consensus which includes nearly all the Jewish parties. Barak is therefore unlikely to show any flexibility on this issue. The most sensitive for the Palestinians is the second. A UN resolution of December 1948 upheld the right of the 700,000 refugees to choose between a return to their original homes and compensation, but it remained a dead letter. The refugees, whose numbers have swelled to three million, remain passionately attached to the right of return. One of the criticisms of the Oslo Accords was that they sacrificed the national rights of the Palestinian people, including the right of return, without a guarantee of independence or statehood.

In Israeli eyes, the right of return is a codeword for the destruction of the Jewish state. No mainstream Jewish leader has ever recognised it and there is not the remotest possibility that Barak would reverse this stand. The most that one can hope for is that, while adhering to their ritual positions, the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority would seek creative solutions to the refugee problem within the context of an overall settlement. One pointer in that direction was the agreement reached in 1995, shortly before Rabin’s assassination, between Yossi Beilin and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Arafat’s deputy. The basic premise of the Beilin/Abu Mazen plan was that there would be a demilitarised Palestinian state, with a capital in Abu Dis, just outside the municipal boundary of Jerusalem. The plan envisaged the annexation by Israel of about ten per cent of the West Bank, where the bulk of the settlers reside, giving the rest the choice between compensation and staying on under Palestinian sovereignty. Barak is unlikely to offer such favourable terms, but he is willing to relinquish some of the more isolated Jewish settlements. These could provide housing for the resettlement of twenty or thirty thousand Palestinian refugees. It would be a small beginning, but a highly symbolic one, given that some of the Arab houses taken over by the newly born Jewish state in 1948 were used to accommodate Holocaust survivors.

No one supposes that a solution to these problems will be easy to reach. But the 70-year-old and ailing Arafat, who has kept his side of the Oslo deal, and continues to co-operate closely with the Israeli security services and the CIA in the fight against Islamic extremists, cannot wait much longer to produce tangible results for his disillusioned Palestinians. It is time for General Barak to bite the bullet.

An independent Palestinian state is inevitable. It will be weak, demilitarised and territorially divided, but with a capital in the Arab part of Jerusalem. The real question now is whether Israel will give the Palestinians a chance to build their state or strive endlessly to weaken, limit and control it. Barak has the authority to end the 100-year-old conflict with the Palestinians and the other Arab states and a unique opportunity to do so.