Fear of Israel's Voters Drives Latest Mideast Talks

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Prime Minister Ehud Barak: Clutching at straws?

Bill Clinton is out of office and Ehud Barak looks like he will be too in a matter of weeks. So why are Israelis and Palestinians suddenly engaged in a 10-day negotiation marathon?

Well, there's conventional wisdom and there's what the insiders are saying. Conventional wisdom on both sides is that the reason is Ariel Sharon's peace plan, unveiled last week. Sharon looks set to trounce Barak in the election on February 6, and he made clear that he would offer the Palestinians only a fraction of what had been on the table at Camp David. So, this thinking goes, Arafat realized that if he didn't throw a lifeline to Barak, he'd end up with essentially what he has now and nothing more.

On the other side of this equation, the thinking goes, Barak doesn't want to leave any stone unturned. Even though he's not optimistic about a deal and doesn't think it would do him any good at the polls, he's trying to get whatever deal he can. And he's taking a lot of heat for that. Two members of his own cabinet on Saturday upbraided him for the negotiations, saying doing this just before the election is unsavory. Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami retorted that while they were negotiating, Barak's team wouldn't sign anything. There's concern that it's not cricket to make a new deal and then lose the election and hand a poisoned chalice to Sharon. And, of course, Barak's party may end up in a unity government with Sharon.

So what are the insiders saying?

The insiders on the center and right flank of Israeli politics believe Arafat knows that Sharon is going to get elected, and plans to turn up the level of violence in the hope of provoking Sharon to abandon his friendly, grandfatherly image and strike back with an iron fist. People who subscribe to this line of thinking believe Arafat can strengthen his case if he keeps negotiating until the moment Sharon takes office, and is then able to blame Sharon for the breakdown. That would play badly for Israel in foreign capitals and bring renewed international pressure.

Could Barak be planning a surprise, in the hope of turning around his negative ratings in the polls?

Nobody knows, not even those who sit in the next office to Barak. He's isolated himself even within his own cabinet, and certainly in the parts of his own party where many would rather see Peres running. And even his own close advisers complain he hasn't consulted them sufficiently. So if he is hoping for a peace deal to save him from defeat at the polls, nobody's betting on it. And now that there's a new administration in Washington, of course, Israelis have begun speculating about whether the American taxpayers will be prepared to foot the bill for a peace deal, as Bill Clinton said they would.

So it's safe to say that what happens in the latest negotiations is secondary to what happens in the Israeli election two weeks from now?

Absolutely. And frankly, if the elections themselves haven't gotten Israelis particularly excited, there's even less interest in the new peace talks.