Pork-Barrel Rebellion May Help Barak Negotiate

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It may not be kosher, but pork is a staple of democracy — and as the only democracy in the Mideast peace process, Israel is being reminded that it that can make life difficult. Prime Minister Ehud Barak suffered a setback in parliament Wednesday when a key coalition partner ditched his government and added the crucial votes that passed a bill requiring early elections. Although an early poll would almost certainly shut down the peace process for the year, the dispute was unrelated to any concessions Barak may be planning to make to the Palestinians or to Syria. The ultra-orthodox Shas party, the second largest in the ruling coalition, broke ranks after Barak turned down its funding demands for the religious school system the party oversees. Although Shas voted with some conservative parties opposed to Barak's peace proposals, the bill has to pass two further readings before becoming law, and the party's leaders made clear they would return to the fold if the prime minister agrees to resume negotiations over funding their pet project.

Although his parliamentary setback makes Barak look weak at home as peace talks with Palestinians enter a decisive phase, that impression may actually suit the Israeli leader's negotiating stance. Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon has hardened Palestinian resolve to press for the return of all Palestinian territory seized by Israel in the war of 1967 — all of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem — and Yasser Arafat is clearly under mounting pressure from his own followers to make no further concessions. As both sides prepare for a new round of umpiring in the U.S., a parliamentary vote casting Barak as a beleaguered dove certainly reminds both Arafat and President Clinton that his room for maneuver, too, is limited by his constituency — even if it's really no more than a storm in a pork barrel (after all, to get Shas back on board Barak simply has to cut a few checks). The more fundamental obstacle to concluding a final agreement remains the gulf between Israeli and Palestinian expectations of the shape of their peace.