Coalition Setback Is the Least of Barak's Woes

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Ehud Barak's parliamentary setback can be easily repaired; it's the erosion of trust in his peacemaking ability that may cost him dearly. The Israeli leader suffered a dramatic 60-53 defeat in the Knesset Wednesday, after three of his coalition partners backed an opposition bill that would jeopardize chances of peace with Syria — the legislation requires that Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights be approved by a majority of eligiblevoters rather than simply those who bother to vote, making the necessary target more like 65 percent of the actual turnout. But the bill, which is still in its early stages, is not the real problem, says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer. "That is easily fixed," says Beyer. "The reason Barak lost so badly was primarily because the Shas party, one of his most important coalition partners, voted against him as a protest on an entirely unrelated issue — its demand for a greater say in the running of the education department. All he has to do to fix that is make some concessions on that front, and he'll do it because peace with Syria is more important to him."

The parliamentary setback, however, simply confirmed the waning of the optimism over peace prospects that followed Barak's election. "Barak came in promising peace with the Syrians, but that's broken down," says Beyer. "He promised to produce a final agreement with the Palestinians, but instead those talks are absolutely frozen." And his promise of unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon by July looks more than shaky as Hezbollah guerrillas fight on unrelentingly. The consequence of breakdowns on the Syrian and Palestinian front, and Israel's bombing of Lebanon in response to Hezbollah attacks, has seen Barak's store of goodwill among his neighbors dramatically depleted. "The atmosphere of the peace process has soured once again," says Beyer. "And that can't be easily fixed."