Posted on June 07, 1999 in Washington Watch

Arabs have good reason to be pleased with Netanyahu’s defeat while, at the same time, they greet Barak’s victory with a note of caution. The transition from Netanyahu to Barak will not be smooth, nor will it bring immediate, dramatic change. Not enough is known about how Barak will approach peace with the Palestinians and how vigorous he will be in challenging and subduing Israel’s anti-peace forces in order to move the process forward.

The tasks Barak will face were difficult enough for his Labor Party predecessors–but three years of a Netanyahu government have simply compounded the problems that Barak must confront.

Netanyahu was elected to terminate the Oslo process. When he discovered that he could not easily do that, he settled for radically transforming the peace process, leaving it quite deformed and lifeless.

While Netanyahu’s pre-Wye behavior was damaging enough to peace, his post-Wye actions have been shockingly destructive. These will present Barak with his most significant challenges.

Like a defeated and embittered general in retreat, Netanyahu, after Wye, planted land mines throughout the occupied lands. Any one of these lethal traps laid by the outgoing Prime Minister can explode, destroying the peace process and prospect that Barak might advance toward peace. Removing them at once will be the new Prime Minister’s most serious and urgent task.

These deadly mines, include:

    ·The decision to begin construction at Ras Al Amoud and Jabal Abul Ghanem;

    ·The still unresolved order to close Orient House;

    ·The recent decision to dramatically expand Ma’ale Adumin, in effect attaching it to Jerusalem thus strangling the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem and virtually severing the West Bank into two parts; and

    ·Allowing and even supporting the establishment of the two dozen “wildcat” settlements. These compounds of anti-peace extremists have been deliberately placed in strategic locations to frustrate implementation of Wye.

These actions and the deepening of divisions within Israeli society and the renewed lack of trust and bitterness between Palestinians and Israelis are the deadly traps Netanyahu has placed in Barak’s way–they are his legacy to his successor.

Individually and collectively these Netanyahu ploys are designed to explode the peace process. They have created situations where Barak must either remove them and risk antagonizing Israel’s anti-peace forces, or leave them in place and destroy the prospects of peace with the Palestinians and Arabs in general.

If all of this were not enough, Netanyahu’s friends in the United States are planning to explode a mine of their own. Since the passage of the Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act in 1995, President Clinton has refused to implement the act by using a presidential waiver allowed by the 1995 legislation.

Some members of Congress clearly frustrated by the President’s refusal to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem are now threatening new legislation what would order the move and allow no presidential waiver.

Clinton, like Barak, will have to muster the political will and courage needed to respond to this threat to peace. Some of the President’s advisors are cautioning him against such a challenge. They suggest that Israel’s friends will win in Congress over his objections and, therefore, are urging him to seek a compromise. With national elections approaching in 2000, there are concerns as well about the impact of Clinton’s taking too strong a stand on this matter.

However, such advice is flawed. Should the President fail to stop Congress’ bid to move the embassy, the results will be damaging not only for the peace process, but also for U.S. standing throughout the Middle East.

While these difficult scenarios are being played out in Israel and Washington, Arab states are being urged by some in the United States to make gestures to the new Israeli Prime Minister to show signs of good will to a government that has not yet proven itself. This, too, is flawed advice.

It ignores the fact that the Arabs have already taken many irreversible steps to support peace. And that Palestinians, in particular, have given much and received little in return. Six years after the signing of initial agreements with Israel, Palestinians are poorer, less employed, less free to move about, suffering from land confiscations, new roads and settlements and therefore they are less hopeful.

Israel is the party that must show good will–at least by dismantling the very real threats to Arab rights and to peace that the Netanyahu government left.

Barak is now engaged in delicate internal negotiations to form a new government. In the process he can either choose national unity and a broad coalition that will be paralyzed when confronted by the tough decisions ahead, or he can form a government committed to peace and ready to act to confront the enemies of implementing the agreements signed with the Palestinians.

If the United States is to pressure anyone, it should be Barak–giving him the push he needs to form a government capable of cleaning the mine fields left in the way of peace.

If and when Barak has rid Israel of Netanyahu’s dangerous legacies, then the parties can reengage and work to reestablish trust without fear of new explosions.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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