Barak's Bold Move: Crazy or Crafty?

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"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Janis Joplin sang the great truism first, but this weekend Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak made it his own. Propped up only by meager support in Israel's parliament, and with Orthodox sentiment set firmly against him, the beleaguered PM has apparently decided things can't get much worse. So on Sunday, Barak informed supporters of his plans to push "civil reforms" through the legislature, a move that caught many of his closest confidants off-guard. The proposed changes — which would effectively secularize the country by eliminating many of the privileges currently enjoyed by religious establishments and the ultra-Orthodox, as well as enhance the stature of women and non-Jews living in Israel — have led many to wonder just what Barak is up to.

First thing to note, of course, is that the prime minister's proposal comes just three weeks before the September 13 settlement deadline established by PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who has pledged to unilaterally proclaim a Palestinian state if an accord is not reached with Israel by that date. The failure of last month's peace talks at Camp David stung both Barak and Arafat, and left many doubtful that an agreement could ever be reached. Now Barak appears to be signaling that Israel could be adopting a more secular tone, in the hope that the Palestinians will offer equitable concessions. And though this may seem like political suicide — Barak runs the daily risk of losing his position to a Likud-led no-confidence vote — he can claim two key factors in his favor: The Palestinians would rather deal with him than with Ariel Sharon or Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Knesset may be less likely to oust him if he appears to have found a path to peace. It may be wishful thinking, but these days in the Middle East there isn't much else left.