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A More ‘Sober’ Peace Process for Mideast

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With an overwhelming victory in Monday’s elections, incoming Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is expected to move quickly to revive the peace process with the Palestinians after three years of bitter stalemate.

But even in the first flush of victory over incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-of-center Likud Party, Barak’s supporters cautioned that the prime minister-elect, a former army chief of staff, is likely to take a more “sober"--in other words, tougher--approach to the U.S.-led negotiations than his Labor Party colleague, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

“We want a sober peace process, not excessively romantic as we had in the last phase of Peres,” said Shlomo Ben-Ami, a historian and Labor legislator who has helped develop a plan for Barak’s first 100 days in office. “But one that does not suffer from the inertia that developed under Netanyahu.”

A warrior-turned-statesman in the model of his late mentor Yitzhak Rabin, Barak has promised to renew the negotiations with the Palestinians and resume troop withdrawals from the West Bank, which Netanyahu agreed to last year but then suspended.

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Like Rabin, Barak advocates a physical separation between Israel and the Palestinians rather than Peres’ vision of a “new Middle East” marked by broad Arab-Israeli cooperation. “High fences make good neighbors,” Barak has often said.

But in his most ambitious campaign promise, he also vowed to end Israel’s wrenching, nearly 20-year occupation of a swath of southern Lebanon, saying he would withdraw Israeli troops there within a year.

U.S. officials had remained publicly neutral during the campaign, but they privately expressed hope that Barak would prevail. Late Monday, they expressed pleasure at his victory and said they looked forward to making quick progress in the peace talks.

Barak’s top domestic priorities include shifting public funding away from religious seminaries and Jewish settlements, into which Netanyahu poured millions of Israeli shekels, and toward housing, education and health services.

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“We will restructure our priorities to save 1 billion shekels [about $250 million] from unnecessary settlements and rabbinical expenditures,” Ben-Ami said.

First, however, the new Israeli leader, directly elected by a decisive majority, must put together his government, one that is likely to be both broader and more stable than the fractious coalition that often hamstrung Netanyahu. He has 45 days to form a government, although the deadline can be extended under certain circumstances.

Because Barak refrained from making promises to potential government partners before the election, “he’s really in the catbird seat,” a Western diplomat said. “He promised no one anything [and] owes nothing, so anyone who wants to join him will have to pay.”

The size of his own victory and that of his Labor-led One Israel coalition, which retained at least 29 of its current 34 seats in parliament, allows Barak numerous options for his government. He may opt for a relatively narrow coalition of center-left parties made up of Labor, the predominantly Russian Israel With Immigration party, leftist Meretz, secular Shinui and perhaps at least one of several small Arab parties.

Or, with Netanyahu vanquished and promising to resign as the leader of a shrunken Likud, Barak may invite the right-of-center party into a national unity government, seeking the broadest coalition possible as he prepares to make tough decisions on the peace process, especially the long-stalled “final status” negotiations with the Palestinians.

In either case, Barak is also likely to seek “religious legitimacy” for future difficult decisions on the West Bank and Jewish settlements there by inviting one of the religious parties to join his government, Ben-Ami said. Many religious Jews believe that the West Bank is biblical land promised to the Jewish people by God.

The probable candidate for this is the National Religious Party, a Zionist, pro-settlement group, or perhaps Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party that advocates speeding up the peace process with the Palestinians. But Shas, the third-largest party in the new parliament, as it was in the old, is considered less likely because its leader, Aryeh Deri, was recently convicted on corruption charges.

Barak’s victory was sweeping, a measure both of Israelis’ confidence in his ability to bring change and restore hope to their country, and of their desire to be rid of the divisive policies and stormy tenure of Netanyahu.

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A bitter, five-month contest remarkably devoid of issues, the campaign became a referendum on Netanyahu’s personality and character, which even his closest aides conceded recently would probably cost him the election.

Netanyahu tried for a rerun of the effective campaign he mounted in 1996 against Peres, when he portrayed the dovish Labor Party leader as a man who would “divide Jerusalem” and could not be trusted to protect Israel’s security as he raced to make peace with the Palestinians. A string of bloody Palestinian suicide attacks in the weeks before that year’s elections drove the point home, and Netanyahu won by fewer than 30,000 votes of 2.9 million cast.

But it didn’t work against Barak, who as Israel’s most decorated soldier could hardly be painted as soft on security. Barak’s team of American campaign consultants also tried to underscore their candidate’s legendary military career in a series of ads aimed at answering lingering Israeli concerns about security under a Labor-led government.

“Security will always be the issue in Israeli campaigns, but suggesting that someone who has the Israeli equivalent of five congressional medals of honor has no record on security was never going to work. And that’s what Netanyahu was trying to do,” Robert Shrum, Barak’s U.S. media consultant, said late Monday.

Netanyahu’s efforts to make Jerusalem an election issue also failed. His Likud colleague, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, declined to paint Barak as someone who would divide the city, the eastern half of which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East War. Palestinians claim the eastern half as the capital of a future Palestinian state. And Israel’s Supreme Court blocked Netanyahu’s efforts, in the final week before the election, to shut Palestinian offices in their East Jerusalem headquarters, which could have provoked bloodshed.

According to virtually complete returns, Barak drew support not only from leftist and centrist voters but from the traditionally Likud-allied sectors of the electorate, including working-class and traditional Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin, and from a number of new Russian immigrants.

Political scientist Yaron Ezrahi said Israelis also might have liked the fact that Barak is an occasionally wooden public speaker, a gruff military man akin to Rabin, and in stark contrast to the smoothly articulate Netanyahu.

“Even in the age of television, there is a fundamental Israeli suspicion of men of words, people who speak too much and are too good at it, against men of action,” said Ezrahi, a professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

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But perhaps most significant, Barak managed to cast himself as a unifying figure, one who would seek to heal the growing rifts between Israel’s left and right, and religious and secular communities, as the nation faces difficult negotiations with the Palestinians and, perhaps, the Syrians.

“I will be the prime minister of everybody,” Barak said early today after leading thousands of ecstatic supporters in a stirring, off-key, version of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva, or “The Hope.”


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