Jerusalem Demo Bodes Ill for Barak

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An Israeli flag is waved during a protest against the U.S. peace proposal

Tens of thousands of Israelis are marching in Jerusalem to protest against handing any of the city back to the Palestinians. What's the significance of today's rally?

"Firstly, the Israeli right wing knows it has a winning issue when it comes to Barak offering big concessions in Jerusalem. It's a very nationalistic demonstration — I was there earlier, and it's the same people you usually see at nationalist demonstrations. Mostly religious people, but wearing knitted yarmulkas — not the ultra-Orthodox, in other words, but the religious nationalists who make up the backbone of the settlement movement.

"But Jerusalem is an issue on which many very liberal Israelis feel great discomfort. Not so much because they don't like the concessions on the Temple Mount that Barak has put on the table, but because they feel that while they're making all these concession on what for them is the holiest site, the Palestinians are moving in the opposite direction, refusing to acknowledge the fact that the Jewish temple stood on the same site, and refusing to compromise. Many Jews who are not particularly nationalistic see that as a very unfair element of current negotiations.

"The mufti of Jerusalem recently issued a fatwa saying there was no Jewish temple and no validity to Jewish claims that this was the Temple Mount. That touches a raw nerve for a lot of people who wouldn't go to this demonstration because they wouldn't feel comfortable with the sort of people who are organizing it. But they feel uncomfortable to the point of possibly not voting for Barak, because while agreeing with his stance, the response from the Palestinians has been so negative. There's growing alarm in Israel at a sense that the more compromises Israel offers, the more hard-line Palestinian positions appear to become.

How are Prime Minister Barak's reelection chances looking?

"Things are looking absolutely awful for Barak. He's 22 points behind in the polls. His strategy had been to get a peace agreement and make the election a referendum on peace, but he's not going to get a deal. At best he'll get a loose declaration on peace that may not even be signed, but may simply be read by Clinton. The object would be mostly to carry over some momentum to the Bush administration, getting them excited about prospects for peace rather than making the whole issue look like a hand grenade about to explode.

"Barak is still trying to make it a referendum on peace, but unless he can convince a lot of Israelis that he can change the way he's handling things, he's going to lose. What Sharon has to do is to continue to press home his ideas, which are quite uncompromising, at the same time as vowing to continue some form of peace process, but nowhere near what Barak has shown he'll give. Polls show that many Israelis right now are quite happy to withhold what Barak has offered."

What of the rumors that Barak's party may yet ditch him in favor of Shimon Peres?

"The Labor party is able to do that until 96 hours before voting starts. Peres, who was considering being candidate of the Meretz party until they decided to back Barak, has said he's not interested. He's already lost four elections, and he doesn't want to lose another one. But Barak may decide not to be the one to lose it, and may step aside to allow Peres to lose it. Or the party could ditch him. Because according to the polls, while Barak loses to Sharon by a mile, Peres in some polls actually beats Sharon by a small margin. He's an elder statesman, a safe pair of hands, a solid guy seen as the man to manage the peace process."

So no prospects for a breakthrough in peace talks?

"Israeli diplomats have decided that nothing is going to happen in any really concrete way before Clinton goes. And once he goes, nothing will happen before Israel's February 6 election. And if Sharon wins, then nothing is going to happen, period. So nobody is holding their breath on the Israeli side.

"On the Palestinian side, they want concrete measures also. Arafat wants maps, an acceptable answer on refugees and for the Israelis to cry uncle on the Temple Mount. Clinton has been leaning hard on Arafat in recent weeks, and if the Palestinian leader was interested in simply a nice little handshake in the Rose Garden, he'd have been there already."