Analysis / Barak Coos Like Dove

Defense Minister Ehud Barak came back from the Annapolis conference and discovered that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had taken his place as the head of Israel's peace camp while he was busy expressing his doubts and reservations about the renewal of talks with the Palestinians. This is the conclusion of the survey carried out by Haaretz-Dialog and published Friday.

But Barak knows how to learn quickly, and during the cabinet meeting yesterday he announced his support for the "evacuation-compensation" package for those settlers who willingly leave their homes in the West Bank, and seek new lives inside the Green Line.

Labor, Barak said, will support the bill promoted by MKs Colette Avital (Labor) and Avshalom Vilan (Meretz). Thus, the defense minister found a "leftist" agenda, one that makes him more appealing to Labor voters, without fighting with the settlers and the right wing, or dulling his security-minded stance.

This is not a new idea, and Barak's leading supporters on the diplomatic front were actually his political rivals: Haim Ramon, Amir Peretz and Ami Ayalon. The responses he enjoyed were positive, and they also came from the senior ranks of the U.S. administration.

Barak's albeit belated decision favors a very logical political reality: If the state would like to signal its intention to pack up the settlements, but is concerned about a possible clash with the right involving force, this is a way of mitigating the problem by paying compensation to all those who are willing to leave of their own accord.

Barak explained that the moment the state set up the separation fence, it must care for those who were left on the other side. Offering compensation early will make it easier to absorb those who will be evacuated, and who will not leave in one big wave, like the one from the Gaza Strip.

The prime minister's response was to shrug. "The matter deserves to be examined," he said during the cabinet meeting, as he does any time he is asked about the "evacuation-compensation" package. A source in his bureau said yesterday the idea will be brought up for discussion in the future, but for the time being, they were not dealing with it.

Olmert apparently prefers not to stir up trouble on the settler front before the results from the talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are clear.

Members of the Washington Institute met the prime minister yesterday and heard him describe the peace talks after Annapolis with great excitement, supporting the security cooperation with the PA and even the bolstering of forces at roadblocks so Palestinians can move through quicker. In short, everything that Barak is less than excited about.

But now, the defense minister also has something to offer to the peace camp.