There May Be Method to Barak's Bob-and-Weave

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You never say "never" in Israeli politics, which may explain Ehud Barak's apparent flip-flopping on handing over villages near Jerusalem to the Palestinians. The Israeli prime minister on Tuesday backed away from a plan to hand over the ethnically Palestinian Jerusalem suburb of Anata next week, under pressure from his right-wing opposition and even some key elements of his own coalition. But while the retreat had Palestinians and media commentators questioning whether Barak is able to deliver Israeli acceptance of final peace treaties with the Palestinians and with Syria, the maneuver may have been part of a plan to prepare them for concessions. "Barak may have floated the possibility of returning Anata to the Palestinians in order to test Israeli reaction," says TIME Jerusalem correspondent Aharon Klein. "Earlier, when he'd considered giving back another village, Abu Dis, the opposition had rallied public opinion against him. This time, he withdrew the suggestion before opposition had time to develop." Next week's handover of territory, amounting to just over 6 percent of the West Bank, marks the final Israeli withdrawals before a final peace treaty is completed, and Yasser Arafat's negotiators have long looked to Abu Dis — which was included in Jerusalem's boundaries when the city was under Ottoman rule, but excluded from later municipal maps — as a solution to the two sides' rival claims on Jerusalem as their capital. The Palestinian Authority would set up its administration in Abu Dis, which it would call Jerusalem ("Al Quds," actually, the city's Arabic name).

While domestic politics may appear to have restrained Barak from handing over either Abu Dis or Anata in the interim stage, the very mooting of the idea may have helped prepare the way for their transfer to the Palestinian Authority in a final treaty. "Barak has made clear he plans to eventually hand over both neighborhoods, and now it's only a matter of time," says Klein. "Next time it comes up for discussion, it's unlikely to make the headlines in the same way and the opposition is unlikely to muster the same support for blocking it. The public's attention will have moved on to something else."