New Israeli Leader Vows to Seek Peace
Ehud Barak, the highly decorated army hero who stormed to a stunning election victory 50 days before, solemnly vowed Tuesday to forge a “peace of the brave” with his small country’s Arab neighbors and then was sworn in as Israel’s prime minister.
Barak’s inauguration marked the beginning of a new era in Middle East peacemaking as he placed the revival of long-stalled negotiations with Syria, other Arab states and the Palestinians at the top of an ambitious agenda.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Jul. 08, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 8, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Barak’s father--Yisrael Brog is the father of Israel’s new prime minister, Ehud Barak. Brog’s first name was incorrectly reported in Wednesday’s Times.
His rise to power has awakened hopes of dramatic changes that might lift Israel from a long period of international confrontation and political malaise. Yet the divisions in Israeli society were in clear evidence at Tuesday’s inauguration as Israeli Arab and female legislators heckled Barak, protesting his failure to include them in the government.
For now, repairing social rifts will take a back seat to security issues, on which Barak is expected to act decisively but deliberately.
“From here and today,” Barak told the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, “I call on all the region’s leaders to stretch out their hands to meet our outstretched hands and forge a peace of the brave in the region . . . a region that knew so many wars, blood and suffering.”
It was Barak’s first wide-ranging policy speech since his May 17 election, and he paid stirring homage to comrades lost in the wars that have framed both Israel’s history and Barak’s career.
There were signs of movement Tuesday. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat welcomed Barak’s overture, and the two may meet as early as Monday. Barak also expects to meet in Washington with President Clinton in the next two weeks and to visit Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and perhaps King Hassan II of Morocco.
Israel Radio reported that the Israeli army was already drawing up plans to turn over more West Bank land to the Palestinians, as agreed to in last fall’s Wye Plantation accord. That agreement was signed by Barak’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, but allowed to flounder when Netanyahu accused the Palestinians of failing to hold up their end of the deal.
In a clear departure from Netanyahu’s antagonistic style, Barak on Tuesday recognized “the pain of the Palestinian people” and addressed Syrian President Hafez Assad directly in appealing for a reopening of security talks aimed at ending within a year’s time Israel’s two-decade occupation of southern Lebanon.
“A comprehensive and stable peace [is possible] only if we lean equally on four pillars: Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon--which are one in a way--and the Palestinians,” Barak said.
The 57-year-old Barak, a former army chief of staff who grew up on a kibbutz and studied at Stanford, peppered his inaugural address with military images, perhaps emulating his mentor, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin, seen as a warrior willing to make peace, was slain in 1995 by a Jewish extremist.
In contrast to the euphoria that surrounded Barak’s election, which sent thousands of Israelis into the streets to celebrate and restored the Labor Party to power, the mood at Tuesday’s Knesset ceremony was subdued. Perhaps the reality of the difficulties awaiting this government has begun to sink in.
Barak had to sit through more than six hours of speeches before he could take the oath of office:
“I, Ehud Barak, son of Esther of the Godin family and of Avraham Brog, who are seated here today, swear as prime minister to the State of Israel and to its laws, to perform my position faithfully and to carry out the government’s decisions.”
Barak was installed along with his 17-member Cabinet, which represents seven parties and an unusually large parliamentary majority. He then held a brief Cabinet meeting, capped with a toast and a Jewish benediction--shehecheyanu--that supplicants say to thank God for being allowed to live long enough to witness a much-hoped-for event.
Barak found it necessary to build a broad ruling coalition as a way to guarantee his own political survival as he presses controversial policies.
But that strength also may prove the seed of the government’s weakness because the members run the cantankerous gamut from ultra-Orthodox rabbis to secular leftists. And so Knesset members spoke with a guarded optimism.
“This government . . . has very different parts,” Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik who will serve as Barak’s interior minister, said in an interview in the Knesset corridors. “Whether we can work together as we try to move ahead on the internal and international agenda is the real test. I think we’ll have a clear idea in one-half year.”
Dalia Rabin-Pelossof--the late Rabin’s daughter and a Knesset member from the Center Party, which joined Barak’s coalition--stood in the Knesset halls with her mother, Leah, who beamed with pride at her daughter’s fledgling political career.
“I am keeping my fingers crossed for this government,” Rabin-Pelossof said.
Even as Barak promised peace with Syria, other Arab states and the Palestinians, Israeli Arabs sitting in the Knesset expressed outrage that they were shut out of the government.
Ten Knesset members from Arab-led parties voted against Barak’s government in Tuesday’s session and boycotted a later celebration at the home of President Ezer Weizman. They blasted Barak for courting the vote of Israel’s Arabs in the May election, then turning his back on them. After the election, Barak invited almost all Israeli political parties to consider joining his government--with the exception of the Arab parties.
Among those voicing bitter disappointment and accusing Barak of blatant discrimination was Ahmed Tibi, until recently a senior advisor to Arafat. Tibi, who won a seat in the Knesset, said Arabs who are Israeli citizens voted almost unanimously for Barak and deserved better from him.
“Such a public slap in the face, a slap in the most battered face in the country, that of the Arab citizens, we did not expect,” Tibi said in a quiet but emotional speech to the Knesset. “Who would have believed that when Barak said he wanted to be everyone’s prime minister, he only meant everyone Jewish?”
Female lawmakers also were angry. Barak had promised to include three women as ministers or deputy ministers but appointed only one, Dalia Itzik, to the marginal position of environment minister.
Tuesday’s Knesset session also marked the formal end, at least for now, to Netanyahu’s political career. He had already announced that he was stepping down as head of his Likud Party. And on Tuesday, after Barak’s speech, Netanyahu resigned his parliament seat in brief and gracious remarks. He then strode from the podium, shaking hands with the spectrum of Knesset members--left, right, Arab, Jew--and walked out of the building.