Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
3 - 9 August 2000
Issue No. 493
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Passing the parcel

By Graham Usher

It is not clear what inspired President Bill Clinton last week to go live on Israeli television, hailing the "courage" of Ehud Barak and warning of the dire "consequences" that would befall Yasser Arafat should he give expression to the Palestinians' right of self-determination by unilaterally declaring a state.

Maybe it was the American president's method of distancing himself from the collapse of the Camp David summit, akin to the way he blamed the then Syrian president, Hafez Al-Assad, for the failure of the Geneva conference in March (rather than Israel's refusal to withdraw from occupied territory). Maybe he knows that by seeming "more Israeli than the Israelis" (in the description of one Palestinian negotiator) he can leaven the electoral campaigns of Al Gore for the presidency and Hillary Clinton for the Senate.

Maybe, above all, he believed such an unprecedented show of American partiality was necessary to extract Barak from his dreadful domestic binds. Whatever the reason, events in Israel following the interview suggest Clinton now has about as much sway over Israeli politicians as their prime minister.

The Barak government is currently not so much on the ropes as on the canvas, dependent on the bell of the Knesset's long summer recess as its sole means of survival. Less than 48 hours after Clinton's televised intervention Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy announced he would resign unless a "serious effort" was undertaken by Barak to form a "national unity" government. Levy was aware that no such effort could be made, since any coalition including Likud leader Ariel Sharon would mean an end to peace moves with the Palestinians or, indeed, with Syria. He kept his promise and resigned yesterday.

But the real punch came on 31 July, in the Knesset elections for the eighth president of Israel. Virtually every Israeli pundit and poll opined that the result was a foregone conclusion. How could it be otherwise? On the one side stood Shimon Peres, confidante of Ben Gurion, builder of Israel's nuclear programme and architect of the "New Middle East" (and Commander-in-Chief of the Israeli army during the 1996 Qana massacre). On the other was the little known Moshe Katsav, an immigrant from Iran, traditionalist in religion and politically on the pragmatic wing of the opposition Likud party. The coronation of Peres as president seemed a sure thing.

It was not. In a two-round poll Katsav defeated Peres by 63 votes to 57. Nor was the vote simply another protest against Barak's failed domestic and foreign policies. It was the latest revenge of what is known as the "second Israel" over the "first." For Katsav's Sephardi origins and unremarkable conservatism are actually far more in tune with Israeli society today than are the grand neo-colonial designs of Peres. The revenge continued a few hours later when Barak lost one no confidence vote and tied another for "the failure of the Camp David talks." And yesterday, Barak faced a preliminary bill for dissolving the Knesset. He lost that too.

Not that Barak is speaking publicly of new elections. He says he is going to use the recess to rebuild his coalition and move ahead in the negotiations with the Palestinians. It seems a forlorn hope, not least among Barak's own supporters. Israeli Speaker Avraham Burg admits there is now only a "virtual government" in Israel. Another minister believes his leader's only chance for survival is to cut some kind of deal with Arafat and bring it to the country in early elections. But for this "out" Barak would need the help of more than just Clinton.

Barak is due to meet with President Hosni Mubarak today in Alexandria. US Assistant Secretary of State Edward Walker is also on a whirlwind tour of Arab capitals, including of course Cairo. The aim of all the diplomacy is to prevail on Arab leaders to "soften" the stands Arafat held at Camp David, above all on Jerusalem, so that a second "successful" summit can be manufactured sometime before the deadline of 13 September. Arafat, of course, is on his own diplomatic pilgrimage, enlisting Arab and European support for his positions at the summit and for any decision he makes about declaring a Palestinian state.

In different ways, the aim of the Palestinian, Israeli and American entreaties is to place the ball in the court of these leaders. But will the Arabs and Europeans provide the necessary cover for a deal as urged by an American leader whose presidency is now so lame as to be dead and an Israeli prime minister who commands the loyalty of about a third of the Knesset? Or will they stand firm for an agreement that endorses the national rights of the Palestinians which also happen to be those of international legitimacy: Israel's full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem and the right of return for the refugees? Or will they pass the buck back to Arafat?


Related stories:
No deal is a good deal
Staying put, for now
'Pray in Jerusalem'- 27 July - 2 August 2000
America's Jerusalem - 27 July - 2 August 2000
The great divides - 20 - 26 July 2000

 

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