Ehud Barak is starting to realize just how elusive peace can be. The sweeping promises the Israeli Prime Minister made after his election last year--and which he has doggedly pursued ever since--now ring hollow. After a hopeful start, talks with Syria have gone nowhere. The Palestinian peace process is missing one deadline after another. Members of Barak's cabinet whisper that they have lost confidence in his judgment. And public support for Barak's efforts to salvage the peace process is falling fast: in late January one poll found that more than half of Israelis oppose withdrawal from the Golan Heights, an inevitable component of a deal with Syria. Only 25% would vote for such an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.
Last week the outlook became even more bleak. Prodded by outrage at the killing of four Israeli soldiers in the last two weeks by Hizballah guerrillas, Barak ordered air strikes on power stations deep inside Lebanon. The attacks injured about a dozen Lebanese civilians and knocked out electricity in Beirut. "Israel may be sending a message, but it's sending it to the wrong people," said Peter Samaha, a Beirut coffee shop owner. In expectation of Hizballah reprisals, residents in northern Israel scurried to bomb shelters. On Thursday the Israeli army allowed citizens to leave the bunkers, claiming that the strikes had deterred the Syrian-backed Hizballah gunners from launching Katyusha rockets into Israeli territory.
The crisis seemed to subside by Friday, when the U.S. convened a five-country Israeli-Lebanon monitoring committee to defuse tensions and begin the work of getting Israel and Syria back to the negotiating table. But then the fighting flared again: a Hizballah rocket killed another Israeli soldier, prompting Israel to launch a retaliatory air raid and walk out of the mediation talks. "This has been a dangerous set of exchanges," said a U.S. official. "The question is how and whether they will come back from it and engage [in peace talks]. We don't know the answer to that yet."
Some signs were encouraging. After ordering the strikes last Tuesday, Barak talked conciliation. "Our goal is not to close the door in the face of the possibility of continuing the peace process," he said. But elsewhere the rhetoric was more incendiary. David Levy, Israel's usually dovish Foreign Minister, warned Hizballah that "the soil of Lebanon will burn" if the guerrillas targeted civilians.
Other officials fumed that Syria was deliberately supporting the escalation of violence by Hizballah in an effort to exact concessions from Israel. Said Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh: "The pattern of [Syria's] negotiating peace and at the same time giving their support and blessing to Hizballah is unacceptable." Like Barak, he left open the door to restarting negotiations, but warned that "we are in no rush."
American officials scrambled to overcome the new hurdles on the road to a Syrian-Israeli peace deal. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright phoned Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al Shara demanding that the Syrians rein in Hizballah. "In some cases, Syria can be more or less effective in preventing these things from happening," said a senior White House aide. "We've explicitly and directly said to the Syrians, 'Make them cool it.'"
That still might not be enough to break the impasse, which existed even before Israel's skirmishes with Hizballah. Shara and Barak have yet to agree even on what to negotiate first. Shara wants to talk about where the new border would run after Israel withdraws from the Golan Heights, but Barak refuses to consider lines on the map until guarantees of security and normalized relations are established. The Syrians were also furious at the Israelis for leaking a document from last month's talks which revealed Syrian concessions, including a joint commission to draw a new border and provisions for the U.S. and France to maintain early warning stations on the Golan Heights. Since then, Damascus has been cool to Western overtures on resuming negotiations.
Meanwhile, Barak faces other dilemmas. His discussions with Yasser Arafat are in abeyance due to squabbles over the next transfer of West Bank land. The White House has warned Israel that further delay could result in an outbreak of violence by Palestinian radicals. And after last week's fighting, Barak is under increasing pressure to end Israel's 18-year military presence in Lebanon even before his original goal of July, though some advisers would prefer to make a Lebanon pullout contingent on a deal with Syria. "To withdraw unilaterally," says Sneh, "would be to cut and run, and that wouldn't achieve anything." But with peace prospects so dim, remaining in Lebanon any longer may accomplish even less.
Reported by Christopher Hack/Beirut, Aharon Klein and Eric Silver/Jerusalem and Douglas Waller/Washington