touch with the people. Indeed, he seems so focused on achieving peace on, as he says, “two-and-a-half fronts” (including Lebanon), that he may not be hearing the deep skepticism voiced by coalition partners as well as average Israelis who fear the government is on the verge of giving away too much, too soon.
A cabinet minister I spoke with acknowledged that Barak is increasingly isolated and aloof, perhaps characteristic of a man who has spent most of his life in the military, but nevertheless causing concern among supporters as well as critics. Some attribute Barak’s sense of assurance and certainty to rumors that a deal with Syria is all but completed, sub rosa, but that only contributes to a wariness about his demeanor and what other
secrets he is keeping.Elected by a wide margin, Barak, Israel’s most decorated military officer, was compared favorably to the late Yitzchak Rabin, pragmatic enough to make peace but only after driving a hard security bargain. Now, though, pushing for peace in the wake of diplomatic setbacks on virtually all fronts, Barak appears to be slipping toward the Shimon Peres category of more tenuous credibility, and that would be disastrous for those who look to the prime minister as an anchor of reality.
In his address to our group, Barak lashed out at the Knesset vote as “a parliamentary trick” and asserted that he knew what was best for the Israeli people who had voted him into office by an overwhelming majority. In the end, he said, they would approve the agreement he will achieve with Syria by an even higher majority.
“Israel is at a major crossroad where we have to decide our future in a short time,” the prime minister said, noting that his strategy is based on three pillars: “security and a better future through peace with our neighbors; closing social gaps and inner tensions through economic growth; and providing continuity for the Jewish people through unity.”
He emphasized that Israel is strong but that the window of opportunity in achieving peace may be as brief as five or six years before “a new wave of Islamic fundamentalism or terrorism or nuclear weapons in the hands of extremist regimes,” notably Iran or Iraq, could change the situation radically.
“We can pray to heaven or do nothing,” Barak said, “or we can act on reality and exploit our strength.”
He said he was “fully confident” that Israel must do all it can to achieve peace now, though he acknowledged that “it takes two to tango.” And to date, Yasir Arafat and especially Hafez Assad have been reluctant partners.
In addition, despite Barak’s claims, it seems clear that most Israelis are unwilling to relinquish the Golan to a Syria that has not made even a minimal attempt to appear conciliatory.
The day before Barak addressed our group, we toured the Golan, with its majestic — and militarily vital — high points. Ironically, though our trip was sponsored by the World Zionist Organization, an arm of the government, the result was a virtual propaganda tour for holding on to the Golan. Most of the locals we met spoke passionately about the need to keep the 16 settlements in the northern area, with about 16,000 Jews, though without the rancor or militant streak of some West Bank settlers.
“You can’t build a peace built on destruction,” said Nechama Roshansky, who has lived in the area for 20 years. But she added that she would abide by a majority vote on the issue.
Standing at Mitzpe Shalom, a lookout post high above the Kinneret, or Sea of Galilee, with a wide-ranging view of the area, one did not need to be a military strategist to know that controlling the high points is a great advantage for Israel. Our guide noted that the key concerns for Israel were security, water resources (the Kinneret is Israel’s only body of fresh water) and the Jewish settlements in the area.
But there is a micro and a macro level to considering the Syrian deal. On the micro level, there is little to discuss. Syria has shown no willingness to compromise and is demanding Israel give up all of the area, the water resources, etc. On the macro level, though, it can be argued that if and when an agreement is reached that provides Israel with long-term security and sufficient water resources, making peace with Syria essentially will end the century-old Arab-Israeli conflict, paving the way for economic and diplomatic relations between Israel and about 20 Arab states, with the notable exception of Iran, Iraq and Libya.
The psychological benefit would be immeasurable, say proponents of the deal, though even the few Golan residents we met who were supportive of Barak stressed that they loved living on the Golan and would only leave with great sadness.
“We must separate emotions from logic, though,” said Yigal Kipnis, a civil engineer who has lived in the area for 22 years. He agreed with Mark Linton, a fellow resident, who said that “peace is more important than real estate, and we all know there will be a price for peace.”
Far more prevalent were the opinions of the leaders of the national campaign to maintain the Golan, whose signs and bumper stickers — “Ha’am im Ha’Golan,” “The People are with the Golan” — are ubiquitous throughout the country. Avi Zeira, chairman of the Golan Residents Committee, said the vast majority of Israelis support the campaign because they recognize that “the people and the Golan have been inseparable for the last 33 years.”
Giving up the Golan will weaken Israel militarily, psychologically and economically, he asserted, suggesting that Israel “continue the dialogue” until it has a true peace partner.
The assumption was that day might never come, which is soon enough for Zeira and many other Israelis. Just how many others, and whether their feelings may be swayed by a peace deal with Syria, will determine Barak’s fate, and perhaps the country’s as well.