Prime Minister Ehud Barak's statement Thursday that a peace agreement was unlikely before Israelis go to the polls on February 6 was a masterful understatement. Right now, opinion polls show that whether or not Barak cuts a new deal, he'll be comfortably beaten by arch-hawk Ariel Sharon on election day and that would reduce any new deal to no more than a chronicle of what might have been. Because while Barak has thus far failed to tempt Arafat to accept 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, as well as a patchwork of Jerusalem neighborhoods, Sharon has said that Oslo is null and void and that his idea of peace involves no further Israeli withdrawals from the territories Israel occupied in 1967.
And nobody's sure how the new administration in Washington will position itself in relation to the region's peace efforts; right now, it's following a watching brief on the Israeli-Palestinian talks in Egypt, in contrast to the blow-by-blow involvement of the Clinton administration. It's also not clear whether the parties will be able to rely on the White House to cajole Congress into freeing up the billions of taxpayer dollars that President Clinton had promised Israelis and Palestinians to help pay the cost of peace.
Arab-Israeli support in the balance
But many observers believe that the talks in the Sinai resort of Taba are mostly for the consumption of Israeli voters. The Palestinians are throwing Barak a lifeline, realizing that progress toward peace is his only hope of holding off the Sharon challenge and they also don't want to be painted as spoilsports in U.S. eyes. For Barak, keeping the talks going may be a frantic effort to persuade Israeli-Arab voters (about 20 percent of the electorate) to go to the polls and vote for him. It was the withdrawal of Israeli-Arab support that cost Shimon Peres the 1996 race against Benjamin Netanyahu, and they helped Barak trounce Netanyahu three years later. But the killing of some 13 Israeli-Arab youths by police during protests in support of the Palestinian intifada has embittered the community against Barak's government, and his chances of winning their support are minimal even in the face of the challenge from Sharon.
Barak's electoral hopes suffered a further blow earlier this week with the murder of two peacenik Israeli men who'd gone with an Arab friend to a restaurant in the West Bank town of Tulkarm, before being dragged out by masked gunmen and executed. The killings left Israel's "peace camp" angry and depressed, and diminished the appetite of rank-and-file Barak supporters for pursuing an agreement with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. And whether they want it or not, after February 6 they're likely to get an effective time-out from the peace process. A time-out during which both sides will eventually remind themselves, and each other, of why they were talking in the first place.