Barak's Stance Is Full of 'I'm in Charge' Bluster

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Dramatics aside, the latest "breakdown" in Israeli-Palestinian talks may be a storm in a teacup. Prime Minister Ehud Barak Wednesday unilaterally closed talks with Palestinian negotiators over the Wye land-for-peace accord, and dramatically warned that unless Palestinians accepted his terms within four hours he would go ahead and unilaterally implement Wye. "It may come out sounding like ‘my way or the highway,’ but essentially Barak is talking about implementing an agreement that the Palestinians were happy with in the first place," says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. "The current talks began because Barak wanted to renegotiate Wye whereas the Palestinians wanted it implemented. Having failed to persuade them to accept his changes, Barak is now vowing to go ahead with the original deal –- and they don’t need a new agreement in order to implement an existing agreement." Then again, the post-Oslo history of Israeli-Palestinian talks has often involved precisely that –- seeking agreements to implement what was previously agreed.

One point of contention that will persist, however, concerns the 750 Palestinian prisoners that Wye committed Israel to release. Israel has been freeing mostly common criminals, vowing to keep those "with blood on their hands" incarcerated. The Palestinians say that defeats the very purpose of a peace process between Israel and a movement that waged war against it. But on that, as on most aspects of the peace process, the Palestinians have little leverage. "Israel has virtually all the power here," says Beyer. "The Palestinians are at their mercy when it comes to implementing any aspect of these agreements." And at the mercy of the whims of an Israeli leader who first forced them into new negotiations on an existing agreement, and then just as suddenly ended those talks.