Mideast Time-Out May Help Both Barak and Arafat

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Ehud Barak can't make peace if he's not in power, but he can't stay in power if he continues to make peace. That basic dilemma explains the Israeli prime minister's decision over the weekend to flash-freeze the process and even moot plans to fence off the Palestinians into Israel's own idea of what their mini-state ought to look like. The suggestion may have prompted Yasser Arafat to tell the media that Barak could "go to hell," but the Israeli leader's reconciliation efforts right now are directed not at the Palestinians, but at the hawkish Likud party leader, Ariel Sharon. In order to stave off political collapse, Barak wants Sharon alongside him in a national unity government when Israel's parliament reconvenes next Sunday. And by scrapping the peace process, Barak appears to have met Sharon's price.

Barak's decision may have, ironically, created some political cover for Arafat, too. The Palestinian leader was always going to struggle to keep talking to an Israeli government whose security forces have killed an average of almost five Palestinians a day for the past 26 days. Now Arafat, too, has an opportunity to shore up his credentials on the seething Palestinian streets, which had grown openly hostile to his peacemaking efforts in recent weeks. That's a game the Arab League states are playing, too, using their weekend summit to appease their enraged citizenry with ritual denunciations of Israel and promises of $1 billion in aid to the Palestinians, but stopping short of breaking off any existing diplomatic or economic ties with Israel.

Israeli leaders also began informing the media over the weekend of plans to unilaterally disengage from the Palestinians by fencing off the West Bank and Gaza and building a closed, fortified border. But while the unilateral divorce option may have a visceral appeal to Israelis shocked by the recent violence, it doesn't fly easily as a geopolitical option. The point of making peace with the Palestinians was to be able to withdraw from the West Bank on the basis of agreements preventing the territory becoming a base for hostility against the Jewish state along its most vulnerable flank. And unilaterally deciding which parts of the occupied territories will be ceded to the Palestinians and then simply closing the door is an invitation in the long run to make war rather than peace. Whatever its emotional appeal, the plan's strategic logic appears to be the opposite of that which got Israel's generals suing for peace in the first place.

Still, with both Barak and Arafat politically unable to pursue long-term peace talks right now, and the next U.S. administration unlikely to try to force the pace in the style of the Clinton administration, both sides may be positioning themselves for a year or more of low-key hostilities.