Only a Peace Deal Can Save Barak Now

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Ehud Barak had better hope that bad news comes only in threes. Because having dealt him three body blows in the first three days of this week, the Israeli prime minister's domestic political foes may have smelled blood. Barak's foreign minister, David Levy, resigned Wednesday, taking his coalition votes with him. Losing Levy from the cabinet isn't exactly a body blow — part of his pique at Barak was precisely that he'd been sidelined in the negotiation process — but the eight parliamentary votes of Levy's party may be critical to Barak's survival. That much was clear Wednesday when the Knesset, on a preliminary reading, approved legislation calling for early elections, thus putting it on the agenda for a full vote. While the vote came immediately before the Israeli legislature moved into recess, a petition by a majority of legislators — 61 — can force it to reconvene to debate legislation. Barak ought to be concerned, then, that the bill calling for new elections passed with 61 votes.

And the vultures were already circling after the Knesset (including some members of his own party) slapped down Barak by choosing opposition candidate Moshe Katsav for the ceremonial post of president over the prime minister's choice, Nobel Peace Prize winner and three-time prime minister Shimon Peres. That vote was as much a protest at the concessions Barak offered the Palestinians at Camp David as it was a reflection of widespread personal animosity toward Peres even within his own party, as well as of the backlash by Israel's Sephardic (immigrants from Arab countries) majority against the Ashkenazi (immigrants from Europe) elite that has traditionally run Barak's Labor party.

The failure of the Camp David talks has given the hawkish opposition all the momentum, because the absence of a deal with the Palestinians gives the peaceniks nothing to rally around. And that makes the hawks confident of unseating Barak at the polls. The Israeli leader's best hope still lies in concluding a peace deal with Arafat during the three-month parliamentary recess that began this week, and then calling an election himself that would serve as an up-or-down vote on such a peace agreement. Although that scenario remains a long shot, it's far from inconceivable for the simple reason that Arafat recognizes the current constellation of leaders — Clinton and Barak — as his best hope for achieving his goals. In other words, much as he blanches at the deal currently on offer, he may yet decide it's the best he'll get in his lifetime.