All in Favor / Barak Supporters Play Down Party Colleagues' Criticism

Two hours after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plane took off for Europe, Defense Minister Ehud Barak landed at Ben-Gurion Airport from the United States. After four days of work in Washington, D.C. and two days of rest in New York, Barak will convene his party's MKs for a foreign policy meeting, no press allowed, for the first time since being elected Labor Party chairman and joining the cabinet.

Barak is not expected to outline policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the meeting, but Labor MKs are expecting to hear some "yeses" and not only "noes." So far, they, the Israeli public, the Palestinians and the Americans have heard him voice a slew of doubts and reservations concerning the negotiating process being led by Olmert. Barak's party colleagues are hoping that his visit to the U.S. and his relatively long and supposedly unplanned meeting with President George Bush, who is energetically promoting the Annapolis summit, will tone him down slightly and do something to defrost his attitude to the talks between Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Immediately after landing last night, Barak phoned a few colleagues, including Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, and announced laconically: "It was a successful visit, there were some excellent meetings. We'll talk face-to-face tomorrow."

Simhon is aware of the criticism of Barak within his own party, in public as well as off the record, for his "too-tough" conduct vis-a-vis the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank. The agriculture minister does not understand the critics: "Only today I met with the Palestinian agriculture minister, and he didn't complain to me about the defense minister's policies, certainly not in the West Bank. All the issues he raised in our meeting regarding Judea and Samaria were answered in the affirmative, and I could not have responded to him in the affirmative without the approval of the defense minister" (since the defense minister is responsible for civilian life in the territories).

According to Simhon, the main complaints of his Palestinian counterpart, a former Hamas member who lives in the Gaza Strip, had to do with Israeli policy toward Gaza. "In terms of the West Bank, his issues were minor. Everything works like clockwork there. And even with regard to policy in Gaza, Israel has still not fully implemented the cabinet's decision that Gaza is a hostile entity," Simhon said.

If that is the case, why do important Labor figures such as Ephraim Sneh, a former deputy defense minister, believe that Barak could do more for the welfare of West Bank Palestinians? "Ephraim has an agenda," Simhon declared. "That's how he chooses to promote his agenda."