Sharon Is Marching On, Jan 2001

By 21 January it has become quite clear that Shimon Peres is not gathering momentum in the race to the post of Prime Minister. On the contrary: his star is waning by the hour, and only his diehard adherents still believe in miracles. They are very unlikely to occur, though. Barak is holding his (losing) cards very close to his chest, and his strong nerves constitute his best asset. He has killed people during his chequered career as a commando fighter, and this dubious record enables him to destroy Peres despite the portentous polls. Ostensibly, Peres gives him a very hard time by not declaring unequivocally, that his candidancy is no longer relevant. But Barak, aided and abetted by his new ally, the Meretz eternal leader Yossi sarid, plays for time.

The butcher of the Intifada, the killer of 13 Israeli Palestinians as recently as last October, is gambling heavily on the peace camp, and even on his victims, the Arab citizens. This is a rather skillful damage control operation. Barak knows, that the elections have already been won by his nominal rival Ariel Sharon, and he is simply seeking a better bargaining position, in order to secure for himself an influential position in Sharon’s cabinet. After the elections he is not going to associate himself with his current friends from the dovish wing of the Zionist left. The Israeli Arab leaders, who are being courted now, are not going to get even an appointment with him after 6 February, let alone any real concessions. Hence his stubbornness.  Why should he help the doves and let Peres contest the elections? For the sake of a lasting peace with the Palestinians?. Barak, let us be frank about it, does not believe in peace, but in the pacification of the territories by a combination of brute force and diplomatic skill. He believes that Sharon could be a viable partner for such policies.

If this sounds cynical, the devolopments in the political arena vindicate this analysis. On Friday, 19 January, all the major pollsters published their verdicts, and were unanimous: Barak is doomed, but Peres has a good fighting chance. Yediot Aharonot gave Sharon 50 percent, Barak only 32 percent, but Peres obtained 45 percent to Sharon’s 44 percent. Maariv’s prediction was almost identical: Shaton 51 percent, Barak 31 percent, but Sharon beats Peres too, 45 to 44 percent, well within the poll’s margin of error. The Jerusalem Post’s poll, with a larger number of abstentions, gave Sharon 47 to Barak’s 39 percent. The right-wing daily predicts, that Sharon will defeat Peres as well, 42 to 39 percent, again within the traditional four percent margin.

Therefore, according to all the important polls, Barak has no chance against Sharon whatsoever, Peres might have done much better, but for every passing day his presence in the shadow of the polls, while remaining just a virtual candidate, hurts Barak without contributing anything to his own prospects. Many journalists have recalled recently Peres’ prequent squabbles with the late Yitzhak Rabin, who defined him famously as a “tireless subvert”. At 77, his burning personal ambition looks at times almost obscene.

Peres’ supporters constitute an odd assortment of Barak’s rivals in the labour Party, the left opposition in Meretz and rank and file peace activists of the most naive variety. He is also vastly more popular among Arab Israelis, but still very unlikely to obtain the fantastic percentage of the Arab vote that he got in 1966, and Barak in 1999. Afterall, he is a member of the government that proved to be happy-trigger both in Israel proper and in the territories, and many Arab voters rememeber his responsibility for the Kafar Qana atrocity in 1966. But at the moment he stands a better chance to marshal at least some of the Arab vote and to persuade thousands of Jewish leftists to abandon the highly moral and political option of the blank vote.

Peres has contributed to the ideological confusion of the left by often circumventing Barak from a right-wing position. It is highly important to understand the nature of the criticism mounted by Peres against Barak. Like Rabin’s late widow, Leah, Peres thinks that Barak has made too many unnecessary concessions on Jerusalem and on the Right of Return. He is conviced that Yasser Arafat would have settled for much less, if he, Peres, had run the show. On the otherhand, he scolded barak for his excessive harshness, his brusque manner and his lack of respect towards the PA’s senior politicians. Peres, a firm ally of the French during the war in Algeria, still harbours the old colonialist mentality, of the benevolent but superior kind.

This trait of Peres’ mentality is very little known in the adoring outside world, and completely ignored in Europe. The aging statesman believes that respecting an obscure code of honour is more important that material concessions. Being a realist to a certain extend, Peres understands that “honour” should be accompanied by economic rewards. His ideas about peace do not embrace the entire population of the would-be Palestinian State. His “New Middle East” envisages a paradise for the Palestinian middle-classes and the operatives of the PA, in exchange for full security for Israel, including 70 percent of the Jewish settlers. This aim can not be attained without harnessing the PA to a strict framework of agreement and CIA control, to oppress the inevitable opposition by the bulk of the Palestinian people. If this sounds monstrous to decent human beings, it is still the epitome of good virtue, compared to the combined agenda of Barak and Sharon.

The Peres camp is planning some token demonstrations on 22 and 23 January, but the threats of some senior Labour politicians to form a delegation and tell Barak to quit have not materialised by the MEI presstime. Realistically speaking, this is a non-starter, considering Barak’s steadfastness and his opponents’s cowardice. Hence the irony: by 21 January Barak embarked on a clever electoral strategy, aimed at the left and the Arabs, harnessing his diplomacy Vis a vis the Palestinians to this goal. The dream of winning the elections was cynically replaced by a bid to minimise the defeat and than joining forces with Sharon. Oscar Wilde would have said that the ploy is so obvious, that it is only natural that so many people do not see through it.

The pressure to vote for Barak by the pinkoes in the media (including endless moralising by journalists who supported the government free shooting policies only six weeks ago) continues, and his new round of negotiations with Arafat is portrayed as a real breakthrough.

Barak has given up on the right-wing voters, on the religious public and even on his centrists. The negotiations in Taba, commencing on 21 January, are a case in point. All the negotiators have the credentials of pure Zionist doves: Shlomo Bem-Ami (the foreign minister), Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, (the transportation minister), Yossi Beilin (the minister of Justice), Yossi Sarid (Meretz’s leader, not even a member of the government!) and Barak’s aide Gilad Sher. From now until the end of the talks we will hear about “progress” and “positive developments”. All this falls short from really enabling Barak to win the elections, but it is enough to keep Peres out of the race.

But even this assuption deserves closer scrutiny. Politics is Israel is not exactly a pure science in the conventional meaning of the term. In theory, Barak has vested interests in reaching an agreement or at least a joint statement with Arafat before the elections. But the government’s red lines, announced on January 21, make such achievement hopeless. Israel’s official position contains three noes. No to the return of any refugees whartsoever to Israel proper, no to a Palestinian sovreignty in the Temple-Mount, no to the evacuation of 80 percent of the settlers in the ocupied territories. These rejectionist positions were turned down by the Palestinian delegation on January 22. No wonder that many senior politicians in the Labour Party now advocate a pause in the talks until the elections canpaign is over.

The absence of Bill Clinton from the White House makes a real breakthrough in the talks even more remote. Sharon, who tries to project a moderate image in his election campaign, needs a government of national unity in order to thwart Binyamin Netantahu and prolong the tenure of the Knesset until the year 2003.  His notoriety in the US and Europe can undermine his regime, and the presence of Labour’s so-called moderates could be his principal asset. Hence his reluctance to appease the settlers during his campaign, and his broad hints, that Barak will serve in his new government. It is  highly recommend, for all our readers, to place a hefty bet on an invitation to Peres to serve in Sharon’s cabinet as well.

The MEI has asked Peres’ unofficial headquarters for a pledge, that he would not serve under Sharon. The carefully worded reply has shunned from such commitment, and simply stated that Peres will not be a member of the Sharon cabinet if the Likud candidate sticks to his current policy guidelines. This means, that the guidelines are negotiable, and Sharon himself is Kosher. So, even if Peres does not contest the elections (very likely now), he still might be a minister in the mildly rejectionist government of Sharon.

All these developments take place in a troubled society, largely convinced by Barak’s tactics, that peace is now impossible because of the Palestinian intransingence. The Zionist moderates have thus completed their historical mission, to secure the participation of the secular Israelis in the next war.

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