The Propitious Rise of Israel’s Little Napoleon

Avi Shlaim

London Review of Books, 16.9.1999

Ehud Barak’s landslide victory in the general election of 17 May marked the beginning of a new era in Israeli politics. The election was critical for the future shape of the country’s chronically divided society as well as for its relations with the Arab world. Under Israel’s reformed electoral system, each voter casts two ballots – one for the prime minister and one for the parties to be represented in the 120-seat Knesset. In the contest for the premiership Barak defeated decisively Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud Party (56 percent to 44 percent). Barak’s victory was a political earthquake, comparable to the upheaval of 1977 when the Likud swept to power under the leadership of Menachem Begin. Some Israelis saw it as the sunrise after the three dark and terrible years of Likud rule.

The election campaign was one of the most vitriolic in Israel’s history. It highlighted the country’s bitter internal divisions, including the growing animosity between the secular and religious, immigrants and veterans, Jews and Arabs, Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews. Binyamin Netanyahu had greatly exacerbated these internal divisions by his paranoid personal style, by his duplicity and deviousness, and by exploiting the prejudices and the resentments of the various groups for his own ends. Along the way he alienated most of his senior colleagues and all but destroyed his party. Barak, by contrast, set out to heal wounds, to bridge the gap between the different sub-cultures, and to reunite the nation. His basic aim was to capture the middle ground and to this end he reinvented the Labour Party as One Israel, jettisoning much of its ideology and reaching out to groups traditionally ignored by Israel’s Ashkenazi elite.

The underlying question was whether Israel was going to be a liberal, enlightened, Western-orientated society, or whether it was going to fall under the growing influence of the fundamentalist parties. In the first flush it was tempting to view the election results as a triumph of the secular Left over the reactionary and religious forces of the Right. But this view ignores the fact that both of the major parties fared badly in the elections. Likud dropped from 32 seats in the Knesset to 19 while the Labour Party, in its new guise as One Israel, dropped from 34 to 26 seats. This view also ignores the amazing success of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party, composed largely of poorer Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, which gained 17 seats in the Knesset compared to 10 in 1996. Many secular Israelis are deeply disturbed by the growth in the power of Shas whose leader Aryeh Deri was recently sentenced to four years in prison on charges of bribery and corruption.

Direct election of the prime minister was first introduced in 1996 in order to increase the power of the prime minister and to reduce that of the smaller parties. But the result has been a marked decline in the power of the two major parties and a proliferation of slates representing narrow interests. In 1999 15 parties gained representation in the Knesset. The secular left-wing party Meretz, Labour’s natural ally in government, won 10 seats. Israel B’aliyah, a Russian immigrants’ party led by Nathan Sharansky, won six seats. Shinui, an assertively secular liberal party, won six seats on an anti-Orthodox ticket. A new Centre Party, led by Yitzhak Mordechai, a defector from the Likud, also won six seats. The splintered Knesset complicated the task of forming a governing coalition. But the strong personal mandate for change that Barak had won placed him in a relatively strong position to mould a coalition to suit his agenda.

The scale of Barak’s personal victory exceeded all expectations and was indicative of a change in the mood of the nation in favour of reaching a permanent peace settlement with the Palestinians by giving them a state in land occupied by Israel since 1967. The duplicitous policy pursued by the Likud over the previous three years, of pretending to accept the Oslo accords while doing everything to undermine them, was rejected by the electorate. During the campaign Barak stressed that Israel faced some fateful decisions but he was confident that they would lead to security and peace. He pledged to honour all previous agreements with the Palestinian Authority but he insisted that Israel would not withdraw to the 1967 borders, that the whole of Jerusalem would remain under Israeli control, and that large blocs of Jewish settlements on the West bank and the Gaza Strip would be preserved. These were his ‘red lines’. Barak also promised to restart the stalled talks with Syria and to reach within a year a peace deal that would include an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. The difference between Barak and Netanyahu was the difference between a tough negotiator and a non-negotiator. A majority of Israelis voted for a tough negotiator.

Despite Barak’s sweeping victory in the contest for the top post, it took him about fifty days to form a government that would command a majority in the Knesset. He could have simplified the task, and reduced the cost in concessions to potential coalition partners, by settling for a narrow majority. But he set his heart on a broad government which would be more representative, more stable, and afford him more latitude in the conduct of foreign policy. From the experience of Yitzhak Rabin, his mentor, and Binyamin Netanyahu, his political opponent, Barak learnt that the country cannot be governed with only half of the people on your side. He therefore brought on board, in addition to Meretz and Israel B’aliyah, the three Orthodox parties. This involved sacrificing some of Labour’s domestic agenda for the primary cause of peacemaking.

Yet Barak’s bid for national unity did not include Israel’s one million Arabs who constitute a sixth of the population. Having reaped 94 percent of the Arab vote in his contest against Netanyahu, Barak studiously ignored the three Arab parties when it came to forming a government. These parties were keen to join the government, to mark a new chapter in their relations with the Jews. With their combined strength of ten seats in the Knesset, they would have lent unequivocal support for a programme of equality at home and peace abroad. Barak, however, spurned their advances because he wanted to have a ‘Jewish majority’ in parliament in handing over land to the Arabs. On 6 July Barak stood at the Knesset podium and announced that he had secured the support of no less than 75 of the 120 parliamentarians. Israel’s largest ever peace-making government was born.

The size and composition of Barak’s cabinet reflects his intention to keep the reins of power firmly in his own hands. By law the number of ministers is limited to eighteen but Barak obtained special legislative approval for the appointment of five additional ministers. Barak prides himself on being a meritocrat but his cabinet contains its fair share of mediocrities and time-servers, inviting the quip meritocracy-shmeritocracy. Barak assumed himself the crucially important defence portfolio in addition to the premiership. He gave the foreign affairs portfolio to David Levy who broke away from the Likud to join the One Israel electoral alliance. A former construction labourer of Moroccan origins, Levy speaks no English and his notorious indolence was no doubt expected to give Barak the latitude he wanted to conduct his own foreign policy. Senior party colleagues were appointed to ministries that would restrict their scope for independent diplomatic initiatives. Shimon Peres became minister for regional cooperation. Yossi Beilin, another leading Labour Party dove and architect of the Oslo accord, became minister of justice. The overall balance inside the cabinet between hawks and doves, between the representatives of the religious parties and secular liberals, further enhanced the prime minister’s freedom of action. As one observer wryly remarked, Barak formed a large cabinet precisely because he needed no cabinet at all.

For a relative political novice, Ehud Barak’s rise to power has been remarkably swift. His skills as a military strategist served him well in Israel’s treacherous political terrain. His name in Hebrew means lightning, bright, gleaming, sparkling; and his career as a soldier and politician provide ample evidence of these qualities. Ehud Barak was born in 1942 in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon. He enlisted into the Israel Defence Forces at the age of 17 and rose to command the general staff reconnaissance unit, or 269, Israel’s equivalent of the SAS. As a commando leader he displayed originality and creativity as well as physical courage. He planned and carried out special operations, including assassinations and hostage-rescues, which helped to cultivate the myth of invincibility around the IDF. Barak rose rapidly through the army ranks, becoming an armoured division commander, head of central command, director of military intelligence and, in 1991, chief of the general staff.

Interspersed with his military career, Barak found time to study for a B.Sc. in Physics and Mathematics at the Hebrew University and an M.Sc. in Economic Engineering Systems at Stanford University. His relaxation was to play classical music on the piano, particularly Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. He retired from the army in 1995, serving briefly as interior minister until Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and then as foreign minister under Shimon Peres until May 1996. Soon after Peres’s defeat at the polls, Barak elbowed him out of the way and then proceeded to lead the Labour Party to victory in May 1999, in a campaign which had all the hallmarks of a successful military operation.

In the course of his long and distinguished military career, which made him the country’s most decorated soldier, Ehud Barak also acquired some habits that do not go down well in a parliamentary democracy. He is hierarchical and authoritarian, inflexible and secretive. They called him Napoleonchik or little Napoleon in his elite army unit. His colleagues in the party had little difficulty in seeing why and the name stuck. A popular satiric television show in which prominent politicians are played by puppets lampooned him by dressing him up like Napoleon. The physical resemblance between the two generals in uncanny. Barak, too, is short and stocky but strongly built, like a clenched fist. His eyes are dark and bright and his gaze is piercing. He speaks with great precision and he exudes power from every pore.

Yet, fundamentally, Ehud Barak is a study in incongruities, a crossbreed between a hawk and a dove. He stands bang in the middle of the Israeli political spectrum. The basic difference between Likud and Labour in the aftermath of the June 1967 war lay in their attitude to the West Bank. Likud’s attitude was primarily determined by ideology, the ideology that saw the West Bank – Judea and Samaria in its lexicon – as an integral part of the Land of Israel. Labour’s attitude was largely shaped by pragmatic security considerations which pointed in the direction of territorial compromise. But the Netanyahu government compromised its doctrinal purity by handing over small parcels of territory, notably in Hebron, to the Palestinian Authority. And the Labour Party always contained within its ranks many supporters with a strong ideological and emotional attachment to the land of their Biblical ancestors.

Ehud Barak is one of their number. In a talk to students in the West Bank settlement of Ofra, on 12 May 1998, he articulated his nationalist worldview with complete clarity: ‘I live in Kochav Ya’ir, fifty metres from the Green Line [the pre-1967 border with Jordan]. When I open my eyes in the morning and look to the east, I see hills and mountains. It is the Land of Israel. We do not disagree on the connection to the Land of Israel, or to the holy sites in which the People of Israel came into being, or to the places where our nation’s spirit was created …  The question is not the connection. The disagreement concerns the political acts that are required, what needs to be done to ensure the people’s existence, security, and spiritual well-being.’ Barak was prepared to relinquish parts of the West Bank not because he doubted that the people of Israel have a historic right to he whole Land of Israel but because he wanted ‘to increase the chances of creating a stable equilibrium between us and the Palestinians that will protect both of our vital interests.’

Moreover, Barak feels that Israel is well placed to work for an equilibrium with the Palestinians which would safeguard its security. He has a keen appreciation of his country’s military power and of the advantages that this power confers in any negotiations with its Arab neighbours. In contrast to Binyamin Netanyahu, Barak is not fixated on the idea of Israel being surrounded by predators. In an interview published in Ha’aretz on 18 June Barak said: ‘Netanyahu likened us to a carp among barracudas in an aquarium. I say that we are like an enlightened killer whale – if it is not angered it does not attack and devour for no reason.’

Essentially, Barak is what Israelis call a bitkhonist – a security-ist. He views foreign relations, both within the region and outside it, through the prism of Israel’s security needs. Comprehensive peace in the Middle East is his ultimate goal but for him security takes precedence over peace. His mentor and role model was Yitzhak Rabin who had earmarked him as his successor. During the election campaign Barak presented himself as the heir to Rabin, a soldier who spent years of his life fighting the Arabs and then switched to making peace. He promised to follow in Rabin’s footsteps down the Oslo peace path but with caution and without making light of the difficulties that lay ahead. Following his victory Barak intended to govern as he had campaigned – as the heir to Yitzhak Rabin the soldier-statesman, not Shimon Peres the poet-philosopher. Peres’s vision of the New Middle East, based on the model of European Union, was dismissed as pie-in-the-sky by the down-to-earth military planner.

The real question is whether Barak would be as successful at making peace with the Arabs as he had been at fighting them. His reservations about the Oslo accords were well known. As chief of staff he had been critical of the security provisions of the original Oslo accord, the one signed in the White House on 13 September 1993 and clinched with the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO. As minister of interior in Rabin’s cabinet, Barak abstained in September 1995 in the vote on Oslo II on the grounds that it would place too much territory in Palestinian hands before the start of the final-status talks. The entire Oslo process is based on the idea of gradual and controlled Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Barak’s primary concern is that this process puts the onus on Israel to part in successive stages with real assets, especially land, in return for mere promises about future relations with the Palestinians.

In his inaugural speech before the Knesset, on 6 July, Barak was short on specifics but promised to work simultaneously for peace with all of Israel’s Arab neighbours. He told MPs that peace with the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the Palestinians was equally important. ‘If we don’t place peace on all four pillars,’ he explained, ‘peace will be unstable.’ A peace treaty with Egypt had been signed back in 1979 and a peace treaty with Jordan was signed in 1994. That left Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians to complete the circle of peace. On many occasions in the past, both before and after he traded his medal-bedecked uniform for a politician’s grey suit, Barak expressed a clear preference for Syria first. The reason for this preference is that Syria is a military power whereas the Palestinians are not. In the interview with Ha’aretz Barak elaborated:
The Syrians have 700 war planes, 4,000 tanks, 2,500 artillery pieces and surface-to-surface missiles that are neatly organised and can cover the country with nerve gas.

The Palestinians are the source of legitimacy for the continuation of the conflict, but they are the weakest of all our adversaries. As a military threat they are ludicrous. They pose no military threat of any kind to Israel.
The Palestinians could be forgiven for inferring from this and many similar statements that the new Israeli prime minister was likely to be a hare on the Syrian track of the peace process, but a snail on the Palestinian track. In fact, Barak was anxious to meet President Bill Clinton before meeting any of the Arab leaders and it was Clinton who persuaded him to reverse the order. The result was a series of courtesy visits to President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, King Abdullah II in Jordan, and chairman Yasser Arafat at the Gaza border. Having touched base with local leaders, Barak flew to Washington in mid-July for a week of intensive talks which included two meetings with President Clinton. Barak’s aim was to cement the US-Israel special relationship which had been battered and bruised by his predecessor.

In Washington, Barak scored his first major diplomatic success. President Clinton repeated the promise he had made to Yitzhak Rabin: to minimize the risks that Israel would have to assume in order to achieve ‘a historic reconciliation in the Middle East.’ Clinton also reiterated the steadfast commitment of the United States to Israel’s security, to maintain its qualitative edge, and to enhance its ability to deter and defend itself against any threat or combination of threats. American military assistance to Israel was to be incrementally increased with the additional sums being devoted mainly to the fight against terrorism and against weapons of mass destruction. A special grant of $1.2 billion was allocated to help Israel meet the cost of implementing the Wye River accord which Clinton had helped to broker between Binyamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat in October 1998.

Clinton coupled his announcement of the increased levels of US aid to Israel with a call on President Hafiz-al Asad of Syria to seize the ‘golden opportunity’ to renew the peace process with Israel. Asad was far from oblivious to the opportunity presented by the emergence of the new government in Jerusalem. He was the minister of defence in June 1967 when Syria lost the Golan Heights and he remains unalterably committed to the recovery of this strategically and symbolically important territory in full. Shortly after the October 1973 war, Asad announced that he was interested in peace with Israel and he has adhered to this policy down to the present – a full peace in return for a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights. The negotiations on the Syrian track were near the brink of a breakthrough when Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down by a Jewish fanatic bent on derailing the peace process on 4 November 1995. Rabin was prepared to accept the principle of full Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights but there was no meeting of minds on the other two main issues of contention: normalization and security arrangements. Shimon Peres suspended the negotiations with Syria in March 1996 in response to a spate of suicide bombs inside Israel, and they remained suspended during Binyamin Netanyahu’s tenure. All along the Syrians have been willing to resume the negotiations at the point at which they had been broken off.

For different reasons both Asad and Barak now need to break the long stalemate. Asad, who is 69 years old and in poor health, is grooming his younger son Bashar for the succession and he does not wish to leave behind this piece of unfinished business. Barak needs Syria to make good the promise at the heart of his election campaign: the withdrawal of the IDF from southern Lebanon. For without the approval of Damascus, the government in Beirut cannot give Israel any guarantee on border security. Both leaders have political dominance in their countries, both are cautious and pragmatic military men, both know all the ins and outs of previous negotiations, yet both have publicly concluded that the window to a settlement is open.

The signals from both Jerusalem and Damascus have given ground for optimism. Each leader has spoken positively about the other. Patrick Seale, the leading Western expert on Syria, interviewed both Asad and Barak and reported their comments in The Times on 24 June. For an Israeli leader to praise Syria’s leader as a man who had made his country strong, independent, and self-confident was strange enough. For President Asad to call the prime minister elect a ‘strong and honest’ man who could deliver peace with Syria was extraordinary. At the meeting with Barak, Seale was amused to note that the former general likes to doodle with a pencil when speaking, illustrating his thoughts with little drawings. For example, he drew an arch to illustrate his notion of peace – with a Syrian keystone. An opportunity for a ‘peace of the brave’ clearly exists. Yet each leader has his own stiff terms and the road to peace is likely to be stony.

One result of Barak’s peace overtures to Syria has been to feed Palestinian fears that they may become stateless losers in a grand bargain between states. Yasser Arafat and his colleagues succeeded in the past in persuading the governments of Rabin and Peres that the Palestinian problem is the heart of the Arab-Israel conflict and that without a settlement with the Palestinians the peace process with the Arab world could not go forward. Rabin and Peres knew when they signed the Oslo accord that it would most probably lead to an independent Palestinian state at the end of the transition period. Netanyahu, on the other hand, did everything in his power to arrest the process and he remained unalterably opposed to the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Barak is seen as a great improvement on his predecessor but the Palestinians nevertheless harbour serious misgivings about him. In the past Barak had always kept his distance from Arafat and declined to treat him as a genuine partner on the road to peace. As prime minister-elect Barak did nothing to stop the land grabs carried out by the Jewish settlers on the West Bank with the active encouragement of the outgoing government. Nor did he put a stop to the cruel policy of demolishing Arab houses in East Jerusalem that were built without a legal permit at the same time that the IDF was protecting illegal building by the militant right-wing settlers. 

Barak does not deny that the Palestinian problem is the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict but solving it would involve a most difficult and dangerous open heart operation which he is not yet ready to undertake. For the long term he is prepared to consider the creation of an independent Palestinian state but he would prefer a Palestinian confederation with Jordan. ‘An absolutely sovereign Palestinian state will very much complicate the chance for an agreement’, Barak has argued. ‘It will not produce an existential threat to Israel but rather create a threat of irredentism, among other problems.’
‘The issue of two states for two people is not simple. Two real states west of the Jordan River is a problem. In my opinion, our demand must be for a Palestinian entity that is less than a state, and we must hope that over time, in a natural fashion, that this entity will form a confederation with Jordan.’

This scenario falls a long way short of the Palestinian aspiration to full independence and statehood. It was for this reason, among others, that Barak’s first concrete proposal for resuming the peace process was a non-starter. Barak wanted to skip the Wye River accord and move directly to final status talks. As part of that accord, which was unilaterally suspended by Netanyahu due to the opposition of his religious-nationalist partners, Israel is to turn over another 11 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian control and open a ‘safe passage’ route to allow travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Barak was concerned that more troop withdrawals would leave Jewish settlements in the West Bank isolated amid Palestinian-controlled territory and vulnerable to terror attacks which would destabilize his government. He tried to persuade Arafat that implementing all the land handovers, in one final swoop, would be in the interests of both sides. Arafat, however, took the view that all the outstanding obligations in the Wye River accord must be fulfilled before moving to the final stage negotiations. Barak reluctantly agreed.

The negotiations on the final status of the territories, which were due to be completed by 4 May 1999, have not even started. These talks have to tackle some of the most controversial and sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, such as Jerusalem, the right of return of the 1948 refugees, the future of the Jewish settlements, and the borders of the Palestinian entity.

For Israel the most sensitive issue in the final status talks is the future of Jerusalem. The official position claims exclusive Jewish political sovereignty over the whole of Greater Jerusalem. This position is backed by a very broad national consensus which includes nearly all the Jewish parties. Barak is therefore unlikely to show any flexibility on this issue. For the Palestinians the most sensitive issue is the right of return of the 700,000 refugees of the 1948 war. A UN resolution of December 1948 upheld the right of these refugees to choose between a return to their original homes and compensation but it remained a dead letter. Nevertheless, the refugees, whose numbers have swelled to over three million, remain passionately attached to the right of return. One of the criticisms of the Oslo accord was that it sacrificed the national rights of the Palestinian people, including the right of return, without securing a guarantee of independence or statehood.

In Israeli eyes the right of return is a code word for the destruction of the Jewish state. No mainstream Jewish leader has ever recognized the right of return of the Palestinian refugees and there is not the remotest possibility that Barak would reverse this position. The most one can hope for is that, while adhering to their ritual positions, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority would seek creative solutions to the refugee problem within the context of an overall settlement. One pointer in that direction was the agreement reached in 1995, shortly before Rabin’s assassination, between Yossi Beilin and Mahmood Abbas (Abu Mazen), Arafat’s deputy. The basic premise of the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan was that there would be a demilitarized Palestinian state, with a capital in Abu Dis, just outside the municipal boundary of Jerusalem. The plan envisaged the annexation by Israel of about 10 percent of the West Bank where the bulk of the settlers resided, giving the rest the choice between compensation and staying on under Palestinian sovereignty. Barak is unlikely to offer such favourable terms but he is willing to relinquish some of the more isolated Jewish settlements. These could provide housing for the resettlement of twenty or thirty thousand Palestinian refugees. It would be a small beginning but a highly symbolic one, given that some of the Arab houses taken over by the newly born Jewish state in 1948 were used to house Holocaust survivors.

No one is under any illusion that a solution to these problems is going to be easy to reach. But the 70 year old and ailing Arafat who has kept his side of the Oslo deal, and continues to cooperate closely with the Israeli security services and with the CIA in the fight against Islamic extremists, cannot wait much longer to produce tangible results for his disillusioned Palestinians. It is time for General Barak to bite the bullet.

An independent Palestinian state is inevitable. It will be weak, demilitarized, and territorially divided, but with a capital in the Arab part of Jerusalem. The real question now is whether Israel will give the Palestinians a chance to build their state or strive endlessly to weaken, limit, and control it. That is the real test for the disciple of Yitzhak Rabin. Ehud Barak is the right man in the right place at the right time. His heart, if he has one, is also in the right place. He has the authority and a unique opportunity to end the 100-years-old conflict with the Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab states. If he seizes this opportunity, he will go down in history not only as Israel’s most-decorated soldier but also as a great statesman.