Defense Minister Ehud Barak rose to speak at the annual conference of the Saban Forum in Jerusalem, on Monday of this week. Unlike Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Quartet envoy and former British prime minister Tony Blair and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had delivered their speeches the previous evening directly into the cameras transmitting directly into the news broadcasts, Barak maintained ambiguity and his remarks were ostensibly intended only for closed discussion.
He opened with an analysis of the importance of renewing negotiations with Syria, both to distance it from Iran and so that in case of a conflict, "our soldiers will know what they are fighting for." A comment like that can just conceivably be considered criticism of Olmert, who has stubbornly been opposed to dialogue with Syria. But Barak was measured, analytical and calculated and his remarks sounded more like an assessment of the situation than a political jab.
Then came the questions. Ilana Dayan, the moderator of the investigative TV show "Fact," on Channel 2, raised her hand. As someone who bears the scars of Camp David, she asked Barak, are you able to go to the Annapolis conference now with the gut feeling that it could succeed? Does this have any chance at all?
"Are you trying to say," replied the defense minister, "that because of the scars, I am incapable of looking history in the eye and saying whether there is a chance or not? The difference between us is that I have seen from up close how something like this doesn't succeed. I have seen this from very close up. In the end, we need to go there and see whether we can preserve our interests, whether there is any meeting point between our interests and theirs, and if there is not, whether it is possible to create one."
Those present discerned a change in Barak's body language. He seems to radiate reservations about everything that has to do with Annapolis. He agreed with Dayan, who in a follow-up question asked whether the failure of the conference would be liable to mark the end of the two-state vision, and he said that "if we reach Palestinian statehood with a seal of approval from the international community, the very fact of that will be of significance."
And what are the chances of that? "The Palestinians," said Barak, "would have to recognize the State of Israel as a Jewish state. But in the talks on the Annapolis declaration, they havn't been prepared to sign on to those four words, 'as a Jewish state.'" The message was clear: The Palestinians are just as stubborn as they were when Barak met them at Camp David in 2000, the same refusers whose ears got stopped up the moment Israel demanded that they declare "an end to the conflict."
A few hours later, the members of the forum had an opportunity examine Barak's thesis. They made a pilgrimage to the President's Residence to hear President Shimon Peres and his friend Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala), who heads the Palestinian negotiating team. Ari Shavit, of Haaretz, tripped Abu Ala up. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Barak recognized the Palestinians' rights - are you prepared to recognize Israel as a Jewish state? Abu Ala evaded an answer and refused to commit himself. "What are there talks for? We'll get to the talks and we'll see. You are the stronger side, you don't need our recognition."
Israel Harel, from the Institute for Zionist Strategy, directed the same question to Peres. Abu Ala is here, sitting beneath the symbol of the state, and he isn't prepared to recognize it. "What difference does it make?" thundered President Peres. "The main thing is to move ahead. Who needs his recognition? The actions are more important than the declarations."
The following day Barak appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, reinforced by the head of the research division of Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Yossi Baidatz. In recent months the MI assessors have evinced a great deal of skepticism as to the chances of success in Annapolis and have been warning of a new intifada if and when the conference fails. They also see excessive self-confidence on the part of the Palestinian negotiators, who are anticipating that Israel will find itself in the position of the obdurate one.
Baidatz expressed abundant warnings this time too. The Palestinians and the Americans, he told the Knesset members, are trying to dissolve the road map. Translation into plain language: Israel will find it difficult to impose on the Palestinian Authority the security measures and the war on terror as a condition for progress in the diplomatic process. Condoleezza Rice tends to accept the Palestinians' claim that they have already fulfilled the requirements of the Bush "road map" of 2003, and that it is now Israel's turn to freeze the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and dismantle the outposts.
The defense minister spoke next. The most important thing, he said, is that we reach prior understandings with the Americans, even if they entail "a certain amount of verbal flexibility." Israel must insist on a number of points: a declaration of "the end of conflict;" the disarmament of the Palestinian state, on land and in the air; the maintenance of Israeli military installations in the West Bank; no "exemption" for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas with respect to his responsibility for terror in the Gaza Strip; Israel will keep the settlement blocs - Ma'aleh Adumim, the Etzion Bloc and Pisgat Zeev "What about Ariel?" asked one of the MKs, and Barak hastened to correct himself: "Also Ariel and Kedumim."
Barak's collection of red lines stands in stark contrast to Olmert's position. In his own enthusiastic speech on Sunday at the Saban Forum, the prime minister talked mainly about the chances and the opportunity, promised to continue the legacy of Rabin and former prime minister Ariel Sharon and insisted on only two points: recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the implementation of any agreement in accordance with the road map.
Who's the refuser?
This week Barak found himself in the position of the refuser and the skeptic, who insists on casting a pall on the renewed peace festivities. The heads of the rightist factions in the coalition, Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Eli Yishai, of Shas, and Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Liberman, of Yisrael Beiteinu, had no problem accepting Olmert's "we have a partner and now on to Annapolis" speech. Shas announced that if the conference reflects the prime minister's remarks, it has no problem. Liberman is saying that he is far more disturbed by the terror in Gaza than by the prospect of talk in Annapolis. And only Barak, the head of the Labor Party and the peace camp, is full of warnings and worries.
What's going on here? On Sunday, Olmert, Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with the members of the Israeli negotiating team for an update, following their meetings with Rice. Barak heard that because of the difficulties in formulating an agreed-upon declaration with the Palestinians, it will now be necessary to place the emphasis on gestures and the easing of restrictions on the ground. He felt that a trap had been set for him. As was noted here last week, Olmert is leery of conflict with Liberman and Yishai, who are opposed to discussion of the "core issues" at Annapolis. He prefers to pressure the defense minister, who is opposed to the opening of roadblocks and other leniencies. Olmert understands that Barak and his party are shackled to his government as long as a peace process is underway.
Olmert has put Barak in a double bind: He exploded the brief alliance between the ministers of foreign affairs and defense, who attacked the prime minister for his "concessions," when he appointed Livni head of the negotiating team and brought her over to his side, and he has embraced Barak's opponents in the Labor Party, most notably Education Minister Yuli Tamir, Minister Without Portfolio Ami Ayalon and MK Amir Peretz. Ayalon got a treat from the prime minister, who asked Rice to meet with him. Olmert was not disappointed: At the end of the Rice-Ayalon meeting, the media reported on the American secretary of state's harsh criticism of Barak, who is holding up the easing of restrictions and other gestures, and is making the process difficult. (We weren't angry, said an American source, but we were definitely concerned about the defense minister's position. Now it appears that he is going in the right direction, with the deployment of the 300 Palestinian police in Nablus. If that succeeds, it is very important. We understand the security need for barriers, but it is necessary to improve the treatment of the Palestinians and to shorten the lines.)
In Barak's circle, they are saying that Olmert has made a mistake by creating exaggerated expectations prior to the start of negotiations, yet has failed in formulating a meaningful statement with the Palestinians because of the opposition of Shas and Liberman, and he is now trying to place the blame on the defense minister. Barak is wary of a peace process that gallops ahead without clear direction and that only leads to Israel's folding. He has asked Olmert to hold a discussion in the cabinet on the respective interests of Israel and the Palestinians. In the near future we will devote half a day to that in the government, Olmert promised. What is the point of a gesture now, asks Barak, if on the day after Annapolis the demands arise all over again? And why make gestures to the Palestinians, who are assuming inflexible positions in the negotiations and trying to evade the security requirements of the road map?
In recent weeks Barak has become closer to Palestinian Authority (West Bank) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who was not at Camp David. And he has spent many hours with the quartet envoy, Tony Blair, who delivered an enthusiastic pro-Israel speech at the Saban Forum. Blair challenged the European orthodoxy that sees in Israel's withdrawal to the Green Line (pre-Six Day War border) an almost religious admonition. The former prime minister of Britain said that "land for peace is not really the issue; or at least, of course it is the issue, but it is not the stumbling block any more."
From Olmert's camp, they attack Barak in return. Thus far we have heard from him only what not to do, they say, but not what should be done. Alongside all of his talk about interests and discussions, Barak has not made any positive suggestions. But it is clear even to him that if you don't do anything, you will be dragged backwards, that Abu Mazen and Fayyad will evaporate and we will be left with Hamas and Al-Qaida. Security considerations must not be discounted, but Israel's security does not depend on every dirt barrier at the entrance to a Palestinian village.
That is the brass-tacks version. But now let us remove our gloves and move on to the politics. Barak wanted to steal Kadima from Olmert, they are saying in Olmert's circles. And instead of that, Olmert has stolen the Labor Party from him. He is afraid that the prime minister will succeed where he has failed. And most important, Olmert is rising in the public opinion polls, whereas Barak is not.
And there are those who diagnose deeper scars. At one of the recent memorials to Yitzhak Rabin, Peres dubbed Olmert as the heir to Rabin, as the leader who is renewing the peace process after a hiatus of 12 years. Barak heard how his contribution and his part were erased, and he certainly did not like it. He responded by stating positions that entirely ignored what happened during the era of Bush, Jr., and former prime minister Ariel Sharon. Those in the political known are under the impression that Barak is waiting for Senator Hillary Clinton (Dem., NY) to succeed in her campaign to become U.S. president. This apparently is also the reason for the demonstrative lack of affection between him and Rice.
The latest disagreement between the prime minister and the defense minister, surrounding Barak's demand that his military secretary Eitan Dangot sit in on Olmert's meetings with the chief of staff and the head of MI, is being dismissed at the moment as a labor dispute between the two men's bureaus, which has yet to be submitted to the bosses for resolution. The weekly work meeting between Barak and Olmert, on Monday, dealt with operational matters.
Exoneration from Winograd
Olmert had two reasons to rejoice this week. Rice's visit ended in a success: She succeeded in bridging the disagreement between the two negotiating teams and formulating an agreed-upon version of a statement prior to Annapolis. The Maryland conference is being envieionsed as a springboard for the diplomatic process, but not a forum that will present solutions to the core issues. Implementation will be in accordance with the road map. There will not be a rigid timetable, but Olmert and Abbas have asserted their desire to achieve an agreement within a year - that is to say, while the Bush administration is still in office. "Rice departed quite pleased," says the American source. As an expression of satisfaction, she has canceled a plan to return to the region next week to apply pressure to the sides.
The political significance of Olmert's statement about "an agreement within a year" is that he is preparing for an election at the beginning of 2009. That election, they are saying in his bureau, will ride on a single issue, the peace agreement. Shas and Liberman will get through Annapolis unscathed and will wait in the coalition until the results of the negotiations become clear - and then, anyone who wants to will be able to resign and Olmert will go to the public with a peace platform. The political preparations are notching up a gear: In the near future the "Balfour Forum," the name given to a small group of Olmert advisors, whose activities were suspended around the issue of the attack on Syria, will swing back into action and the Prime Minister's Bureau is also likely to start commissioning public opinion polls.
Olmert's most important achievement this week, which has bought him additional time as prime minister, is the exoneration he received from the Winograd commission. In its statement to the High Court of Justice on Sunday, the commission accepted the prime minister's position that it is impossible to hold him responsible for the failures in dealing with Hezbollah. "The more the issue has been examined, the clearer it is that the failures that have been discovered are a matter of judgment and policy over time," wrote Judge Eliyahu Winograd. "It is not appropriate to focus on a small number of officeholders in the present and not to focus on all those who held office throughout the years." This is what Olmert's defense line vis-a-vis the commission was based on: He was new on the job and had inherited his predecessors' blunders. Winograd, who accused him of grave failure in last spring's interim report, is now accepting the prime minister's approach.
The cloud that has cast a shadow over the Prime Minister's Bureau came from the street. The extreme right has reawakened, with the approach of the Annapolis conference. At the right-wing demonstration across from the King David Hotel during Olmert's Saban Forum speech, more than a thousand people showed up and passions ran high as in the days of the disengagement. If we add to this the pictures of Peres in a kaffiyeh, we can understand why the people at the Shin Bet's unit for the protection of VIPs ratcheted up the alert level this week. The domestic quiet of the past two years that prevailed since the end of the disengagement has reached its end.
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