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Ehud Barak

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Netanyahu’s Fig-Leaf

28 March 2009

 Netanyahu’s Fig-Leaf

 By Gwynne Dyer

“I am not afraid of Bibi (Netanyahu). I will not be anybody’s fig-leaf,” said Ehud Barak, leader of Israel’s Labour Party, defending his decision to join the hard-right coalition government being formed by Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. But off in the distance there was a curious whirring noise.

The sound was identified by Ophir Pines-Paz, a prominent Knesset member who is on the left of the Labour Party. “Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett (all former Labour prime ministers) are turning over in their graves,” Pines-Paz declared. In fact, they are spinning at high speed, for Ehud Barak has abandoned Labour’s traditional values in order to save its electoral prospects.

The coalition he is joining is committed to expanding the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and is led by a man who rejects the very idea of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu spent his entire first term as prime minister (1996-99) sabotaging the Oslo accords of 1993, which envisaged Palestinian statehood. As a result, the “peace process” had mostly run out of steam by the time he left office.

Barak got Netanyahu to say that he recognised Israel’s “diplomatic and international” obligations (which include the Oslo accords). But how likely is it that a man who cannot even bring himself to utter the phrase “Palestinian state” will negotiate a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians?

Ehud Barak’s other partners in the coalition will include the Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, a Romanian immigrant who wants to demand oaths of loyalty to the “Jewish state” from Israeli Arabs, and strip those who refuse of their Israeli citizenship. So why did Barak do it?

The answer is simply: power. Not just personal power, although he will get the defence ministry himself and four other cabinet seats for Labour — not a bad result when Labour only holds thirteen seats in the Knesset. His main goal is to keep Labour in the domestic political game, because it is at risk of losing out permanently.

Labour dominated Israeli politics for three decades after independence, and continued to be one of the two big parties for another twenty years after that. But in the last election it dropped to fourth place, and if it refused to join the government it wouldn’t even be the official opposition party. Kadima, a centrist party, would fill that role, leaving Labour to get lost in the political undergrowth.

Barak was seeking some way to avoid that fate, and his opportunity arose because Netanyahu was looking for a fig-leaf. While the core of the coalition that Netanyahu has built consists of “national” (i.e. right-wing) parties that support the settlements and reject a Palestinian state, some seemingly more reasonable coalition member would soften his government’s image in the United States. It’s all about the optics of dealing with Obama.

Netanyahu spent several weeks trying to persuade Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party to fill that role, but when she refused him he turned to Ehud Barak — who leaped at the chance. It makes good tactical sense, even if it is a betrayal of Labour’s and Barak’s own past. And nothing important is being lost here.

From an international perspective, it hardly matters whether Ehud Barak sells out or not, because the “peace process” is long dead. The fiction that it is still alive is occasionally useful to Western and/or Arab governments, and the international media are as gullible as ever, but no serious person in Israel or among the Palestinians believes that this generation will see a “two-state solution,” with Israeli and Palestinian states dividing the land between the Jordan River and the sea along the

pre-1967 frontiers of Israel.

Such an outcome was perfectly possible until Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli fanatic in 1995. Binyamin Netanyahu had to work hard to sabotage the prospect of a land-for-peace deal when he was prime minister in 1996-99, and there was one last-chance attempt to revive it during Ehud Barak’s brief premiership in 1999-2000. But it has now been dead for almost a decade.

Netanyahu doesn’t really even need Barak as a fig-leaf, because he doesn’t have to lift a finger to prevent the two-state solution. He can just point out that there is no united Palestinian authority to negotiate with (and nobody will bring up the fact that Israel worked very hard to create the current split among the Palestinians by fostering the growth of Hamas).

The Obama administration in the United States is unlikely to put serious pressure on Netanyahu, because they must surely also know that the “peace process” is dead. It is politically impossible for Barack Obama to admit publicly that the whole thing is pointless and just walk away from the problem; he has to pretend to be engaged. But is he going to waste a lot of valuable political capital on it? One hopes not.

If you assume (as Ehud Barak almost certainly does) that all the above is true, then his decision to enter Netanyahu’s coalition is perfectly rational. None of the principles he is sacrificing stood the slightest chance of being turned into policy anyway, so why not do what needs to be done to save the Labour Party? Yes, you’ll get your hands dirty, but if you wanted clean hands, what are you doing in politics?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 11.

(“Barak…Palestinians”; “Netanyahu…here”; and “Such…decade”)

Yasser’s Legacy

29 October 2004

Yasser’s Legacy

By Gwynne Dyer

Yasser Arafat isn’t dead yet. The “blood disorder” that forced him to desert his besieged headquarters in Ramallah and fly to Paris for medical treatment may not kill him, but he is probably never going home again, and his long reign as the undisputed leader of the Palestinian people is certainly over. So it is time to write his political obituary, if not his personal one.

Frantic speculation has already begun about who succeeds him, but it’s unlikely that any single successor can command the support and respect that Arafat enjoyed in the deeply divided Palestinian community at home and in exile. The notion that a new Palestinian leader might be able to reopen peace talks with Israel is built on the myth that they only failed because of Arafat’s stubborn personality. His career seems to be ending in failure — and yet he did achieve something.

He should have died at least ten years ago, of course. It would have been better for his reputation, for he never had the skills to run a proto-state like the Palestinian Authority: even as “President” of the PA, he remained at heart a guerilla chieftain who ruled through cronies and relatives, coopted his opponents with bribes of one sort or another, and never failed to appoint at least two rivals to any position of power.

It would also have been better for peace in the region, for a more astute Palestinian leader might just have pulled off a final peace agreement at the Camp David talks with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak in 2000. It was already late in the game, for the 1995 assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, Arafat’s partner for peace in the Oslo Accords, and the subsequent delaying tactics of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996-99, used up most of the available political time and patience, but a more flexible and imaginative man than Arafat might just have managed it.

Arafat didn’t. He baulked at the fact that the Israelis would put none of their proposals into writing (because Barak’s cabinet was already disintegrating back home over the scale of the concessions he was offering). He was utterly unprepared psychologically for the fact that a final deal would mean that the overwhelming majority of Palestinian refugees would never see their ancestral homes again (although everybody else had known it for a decade).

It has been argued that Arafat was wise to refuse the deal Barak was offering because it was only half a loaf, and anyway Barak’s government was already falling. But it was as much of the loaf as Israeli public opinion would accept, and if the deal had been rejected by a subsequent Israeli government after Barak fell, it would have been Israel that took the blame, not the Palestinians.

Arafat was too cautious, and so the deal failed. A month later, Ariel Sharon marched onto the square in front of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem guarded by hundreds of Israeli soldiers and snipers, with the manifest intention of provoking a violent Palestinian response. The Palestinians threw rocks, the snipers opened fire, and that triggered the intifada, just as Sharon (and maybe Barak too, by that time) intended. Four years later, all the peace plans lie in ruins and nothing awaits the Palestinians and the Israelis but endless violence.

So what did Arafat do right? Just two things, but they were big ones. First, he broke the hold of Arab governments who tried to control the Palestinian resistance movements for their own purposes. Then, even more importantly, he made the whole world acknowledge the existence of the Palestinian nation. He did that, for the most part, by successful acts of terrorism.

When Arafat created the Fatah guerilla movement in 1959, the Palestinian refugees who had fled or been driven from their homes in 1948 in what is now Israel were known simply as “refugees”: stateless Arabs who could theoretically be “resettled” anywhere. Arab governments resisted this definition, but in the West it was universal. Arafat changed all that.

The key event in his life was the Six-Day War of 1967, in which Israel conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, where most of the 1948 “refugees” had ended up. In response to that disaster, he took Fatah into the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in 1968, became the PLO’s leader, and launched the campaign of international terrorism that made him famous.

It was universally condemned in the West, and all the authorities vowed that terrorism would never succeed, but by the time Arafat called off the campaign in 1989 he had achieved his goal. The world no longer talked about “refugees”; it talked about “Palestinians”, and just to give them that name implicitly recognised their right to a particular territory. US and Israeli recognition of Arafat as a valid negotiating partner, the Oslo Accords of 1993, and the peace negotiations that took up most of the 1990s were the result.

They failed, and Arafat bears a share (though only a share) of the blame. As he departs from power and perhaps from the land of the living, the future of the Palestinians and the Israelis has rarely looked grimmer. But the history of the future is just as long as the history of the past; we just don’t know it yet. There is still hope, and the historians of the future may be kinder to Yasser Arafat than the judgement of his contemporaries.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“Frantic…something”;and “It has…Palestinians”)