Sharon and Barak: The Art of the Deal

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ehud Barak announced after his election defeat that he would quit the Labor party leadership. But right now he's negotiating a unity government with Ariel Sharon — does he plan to stay on as Labor leader?

Barak is certainly leading the party in the coalition negotiations, but it's not clear whether he'll stick around for the unity government. Of course, even if he quits the Labor leadership and resigns as a member of the Knesset, there's still nothing stopping him accepting Sharon's offer to serve as minister of defense — a portfolio he currently occupies alongside being prime minister.

Israeli papers have people close to Barak saying he wants to leave public life, but that Sharon's offer is tempting to him. But within the Labor party, a lot of other figures who have ambitions of being the next leader, or want some of the ministerial portfolios that would be allocated to the party in a unity government, think Barak should go. That sentiment was summed up by Haim Ramon, who said this week that "it was the man who was defeated in the election, not the way."

Are Barak's people easily able to reconcile themselves to Sharon's profoundly different view of the peace process?

It's been quite amazing how quickly the Labor party has gone from saying they're so close to doing a peace deal with the Palestinians that it was really just a matter of a few weeks of negotiation, to saying saying there's no chance of a deal and Labor might as well go into a unity government and accept Sharon's plan of making interim deal after interim deal. Perhaps when they were emphasizing that a deal was, they weren't being forthcoming on where the gaps were. Now it suits them to play down the possibilities that may have been there. What it comes down to is that they'd like to be ministers more than they're willing to stick their necks out for the peace process. They're also not being very specific about the terms of a unity government, leaving all the areas of disagreement unspoken, to be dealt with later.

So Labor is accepting a holding pattern on the peace process?

The best motive one can ascribe to them is that they think things will be less disastrous if they're in a unity government to keep an eye on and restrain Sharon, which they'll be able to do to some extent if they have the defense and foreign minister portfolios — for which Barak and Shimon Peres are the front-runners right now. But to ascribe favorable motives to the Labor party is difficult right now.

So what is an "interim" agreement with the Palestinians? Sharon has signaled he's not interested in any further land transfers, and the Palestinians are not interested in stability for stability's sake while Israel still controls more of the West Bank than they do. What could be offered by Sharon?

He may not want to do any more land transfers, but that doesn't mean he won't if he judges it to be in Israel's best security interests. Otherwise he could offer to lift Israel's closure of the West Bank and Gaza, and implement a number of smaller proposals — such as a safe-passage route between the two Palestinian territories — that have previously been agreed but never implemented. But it won't be anywhere near the scale of things envisaged at Camp David. But then, unlike Barak, Sharon won't be asking Arafat to make a statement declaring that the Palestinian conflict with Israel is finally resolved.

In other words, Sharon believes the conflict can't actually be resolved, it can only be managed?

Exactly. Neither side is really able to finally end the conflict, but both have an interest in stopping more militant elements from taking things into their own hands and allowing the conflict to spin out of control.