Post Netanyahu Terrain Still Uneven in Israel

Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak moved Tuesday to form a broad-based coalition government that could include conservative elements often blamed for obstructing the Middle East peace process. According to Haaretz Daily, Barak is seeking to unite his Labor party with former PM Netanyahu's Likud party and the ultra-orthodox Shas party, the next two largest parties in the 120 member Israeli parliament, or Knesset. Sources quoted in Haaretz said Barak "wants both" Shas and Likud to add to his current coalition majority in order to protect against, according to Haaretz reporters Yossi Verter and Mazal Mualem, "a situation in which one or even two parties could bring down the government."

While the alliance is still not certain (Meretz, a left-wing party, has threatened to withdraw from the coalition should Shas be included), rumors of the broad coalition have already caused consternation among many Palestinians, according to the Associated Press (AP). The 10 point plan Barak presented as the basis for the coalition, which the AP says is "aimed at appealing to hard-line parties," precludes complete withdrawal from the occupied territories and has no provision for a peace settlement with Syria and Lebanon.

Barak's dawdling comes on the heels of his election victory speech in which he dismissed Palestinian calls for Jerusalem as the capital of a revived Palestinian state. Although Barak's election has been greeted with enthusiasm by Western nations, many Arab leaders are more pessimistic. Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss told Agence France Presse (AFP) on May 18, "There is no difference between Barak and Netanyahu."

The Barak administration has declared its willingness to negotiate a partial return of the Golan Heights, (captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War), to Syria. But peace with Syria before the Palestinian issue is solved would "isolate and weaken the Palestinians," according to a May 23 report by the AP's Ibrahim Barzak.

Barak's cautious attitude concerning the peace process shows sympathy to the sensitive domestic divide between liberal and conservative elements. But the failure to pursue more radical policies is viewed by many Arabs as a dangerous development in an already strained Middle East peace process. According to a May 18 AFP report, Egypt's mediation role hinges upon Barak's willingness to jump-start the peace process and change the "poisoned" atmosphere produced by Netanyahu's government. The report says Syria demands "radical changes" in Israel's policies and the withdrawal from all Arab land. Although Barak's "One Israel" politics could create a less antagonistic environment within Israel, the new government comes to power at a time of exhausted Arab patience with the faltering peace process.

Yet Arab leaders apparently continue to hold their breath as support for the peace process came Tuesday from a most unlikely source. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an Israeli lobby group in Washington which has played an instrumental role in blocking Palestinian demands for statehood, voted to end its opposition to the Palestinian right to declare an independent state. The committee declared its endorsement of "a political solution in the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinians that would permit the exercise of Palestinian self-government," the AP reported. AIPAC spokesman Kenneth Bricker cautioned, however, that AIPAC's shift was not a specific "endorsement for a Palestinian state," as cited by the AP.

With Barak's concession to right-wing parties in Israel and AIPAC's implied shift to support Palestinian statehood, the Middle East peace process remains a confused picture. Palestine will probably realize independence in the near future, as both Barak and AIPAC agree on this basic Palestinian right--though neither support the idea of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Whatever the case, the cautious attitude professed by the Israeli power structure risks prolonging an already strained peace process.

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