Under Pressure, Barak Has to Make a U-Turn

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Does Dick Morris speak any Hebrew? Clinton war-room veteran James Carville may have helped Ehud Barak get elected last year, but the Israeli prime minister's political survival now appears dependent on the sort of U-turns conjured up by the Clinton administration's former policy Svengali. As the death toll from the renewed intifada in the West Bank and Gaza reached 161 Monday — all but 12 of them Arab — the prime minister elected on promises of completing the peace process started by Yitzhak Rabin found himself fighting for his political life Monday, having failed to form an emergency unity government with Ariel Sharon's hawkish Likud party. Israel's parliament reconvened Monday with Barak at the head of an embattled minority coalition warning that the window for pursuing the peace process was closing and that talks could only be resumed if the Palestinians end their demonstrations. The Israeli leader now finds himself unable to govern on the basis of his election promises — not unlike President Clinton following the Republican capture of Capitol Hill in 1994, when he was forced to reinvent himself under Morris's direction in order to win reelection in 1996.

Barak faced no immediate threat in Monday’s session, because the ultra-Orthodox Shas party has promised him its temporary support. But it was Shas's defection from his governing coalition last spring that had precipitated Barak's decline, and any respite offered by the religious party is likely to be temporary. And that leaves Barak forced to either sweeten the unity deal for Sharon by giving him effective veto over any peace initiatives, or else face new elections that pollsters right now predict he'll almost certainly lose.

But the peace process is no longer dependent on the vagaries of Israeli politics. In the West Bank and Gaza, the clock has been set back more than 10 years as young men armed with stones and gasoline bombs confront the guns of the occupying army, and the body count mounts almost daily. The fact that there are a lot more guns on the Palestinian side this time around makes the conflict likely to be more protracted and even bloodier. And Yasser Arafat finds himself its prisoner. He needed this uprising to prove to the Israelis and Americans that the deal being offered on Jerusalem simply wouldn't fly, but it's quickly evolved into something way beyond negotiating leverage. Arafat over the weekend called for an intensification of the intifada, even though he knows full well that the sacrifices this involves won't win him the state he covets. But like his Israeli counterpart, the Palestinian leader has few political options. Arafat is forced to either be the spokesman of the intifada or else become increasingly irrelevant to the conduct of relations between Israelis and Palestinians.

In the end, of course, it's a circular game: The Palestinians can't muster the requisite force to expel the Israelis from the West Bank and Gaza, but they can make life there extremely uncomfortable for Israeli soldiers and settlers. Meanwhile, the Israelis can't crush the rebellion, and the force they're applying in pursuit of that goal will force even friendly governments in the Arab and Western worlds to distance themselves from Israel. So the situation stalemates once again in an ugly equilibrium. Ugly, but not necessarily unstable.