In the midst of fending off a no-confidence vote this week in the Knesset over his party’s alleged campaign finance abuses, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was informed that three Israeli soldiers had been killed in a fierce Hezbollah terrorist attack in southern Lebanon. Another Israeli soldier had been killed there just a week earlier.
The discussion was halted and the vote postponed a week. But the scandal and the stepped-up Hezbollah attacks in Lebanon could not have come at a worse time for Barak. He had been trying to sweet-talk Syrian President Hafez Assad back to the negotiating table, calling him a “strong leader who is serious and trustworthy.” At the same time he was asking Israelis to trust him as he seeks to craft peace treaties with both the Syrians and the Palestinians.
The scandal has provided ammunition for the opposition Likud Party in its effort to tarnish Barak’s image even as the Isaeli prime minister professes ignorance of the alleged election law violations. The charges have prompted a criminal investigation and a $3.2 million fine by state Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg for Barak’s One Israel party.
Goldberg said the party “trampled the law” by using a network of foreign groups and fictitious grassroots organizations to illegally pump more than $1 million into Barak’s successful election campaign last year in a bid to circumvent campaign spending limits. And despite Barak’s insistence that he was ignorant what went on, Goldberg asserted that he “should have shown interest in what was going on in the field.”
Barak told party members Monday that “even if there were mistakes here and there, they were made without criminal intent.”
Likud leader Ariel Sharon charged that Barak’s credibility is at stake.
“Barak didn’t know, hear, sense or suspect that in the election campaign he headed things were being done that today are under criminal investigation,” Sharon said in the Knesset.
And then, in mocking tones, Sharon said: “Barak is dividing Jerusalem. Either he knows or he doesn’t know.”
He was referring to reports that Barak’s government for the first time is willing to discuss a compromise with the Palestinians on the future of Jerusalem. Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, who often speaks for Barak, told Israel television Sunday that Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries could be expanded to accommodate Palestinian demands that East Jerusalem serve as the capital of their state.
Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat said again this week that he would declare independence later this year. The Palestinians have insisted that their capital include the eastern half of Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
Asked if he was saying there would be a Palestinian presence in Jerusalem, Sneh replied: “I don’t want to commit. [But former Jerusalem Mayor] Teddy Kollek wrote an article once on this and he called it ‘sharing united Jerusalem.’ ”
Asked where the borders would be expanded, Sneh said eastward.
It marked the first time a senior Israeli official has commented on reports that the Barak government would be willing to permit the Palestinians to establish their capital in three Arab neighborhoods in an expanded East Jerusalem. It was also the first time the idea of a “shared” Jerusalem has been mentioned.
Arafat reportedly told President Bill Clinton last month that he envisioned the Palestinian Authority administering parts of Jerusalem where Arabs predominate. The Palestinians are already erecting a building that could serve as their parliament in Abu Dis in the West Bank.
But Israelis may be too preoccupied with the deaths of four Israeli soldiers in the last two weeks to pay attention to what Barak is doing, according to Chaim Silverstein, executive director of Yeshivat Beit Or, which is located on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem.
“The Syrian issue has provided a convenient smokescreen for them,” he said. “That is why we have put posters up all over Jerusalem that say, ‘Quietly, quietly they are dividing up Jerusalem.’ ”
To illustrate their point, the posters contain a picture of Jews at prayer at the Western Wall with a line running horizontally down the middle.
“They are trying to divide up Jerusalem without saying they are dividing it,” said Silverstein, who noted that a new organization, Jerusalem Forum, has been formed by the 15 Jewish neighborhoods in eastern parts of Jerusalem that are home to 200,000 Jews.
“Once they expand the borders of Jerusalem, they could say they are now sharing Jerusalem,” he said. “The northern Jerusalem neighborhoods are contiguous to Ramallah, and if [the Palestinian Authority] get them, they would have an uninterrupted Arab corridor from Ramallah in the north, through the Old City and down to Bethlehem in the south.”
Silverstein added that there were Israelis and newspaper editorials now comparing Barak to a “wounded animal who might take desperate measures to extricate himself from a difficult situation. They are worried that he might carry out extreme measures and sell out Israel.”
Sharon reportedly agrees with that sentiment. Likud is now organizing a major demonstration in the coming weeks that will call upon Barak to keep Jerusalem the united capital of Israel.
Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, Yosef Livne, said there are “many ideas floating around [regarding the future of Jerusalem], but the policy of the government of Israel still remains the same — Jerusalem is and will remain the undivided capital of Israel.”
Barak has said that peace agreements signed with the Palestinians and Syrians would be subject to referendums.
Marathon Israeli-Palestinian negotiations began Sunday at a secret location near Jerusalem to try to develop by Feb. 13 the framework for a September peace treaty. Among the key issues to be resolved is the status of Jerusalem, water rights, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinian refugees. Barak and Arafat were slated to conduct one-on-one talks late this week, and U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross was also expected to be on hand to help bridge differences.
Meanwhile, Barak backed away from his harsh criticism of Syria in the wake of the killing of three Israeli soldiers in Lebanon Monday and the assassination Sunday of a top commander of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. At first he said no talks could be held until Syria, the power broker in Lebanon, reined in Hezbollah forces.
But the next day, after visiting an army base on the Lebanese border, Barak said he did not want to escalate the conflict. That comment was widely seen as Barak’s desire to get on with peace talks.
In turning the other cheek, Barak was also putting aside an article in a Syrian state newspaper that claimed Israel had exaggerated the magnitude of the Holocaust to win more money from Germany and other Western establishments. It charged also that Israel wanted to “benefit from the myth of the Holocaust and accuse anyone opposed to Zionism and its expansionist policies of anti-Semitism.”
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the article’s assertions “obviously ridiculous.” The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, called it “outrageous.”
“At a time when Israel and Syria are currently engaged in a negotiating process, the demonization of Jews and Israelis in today’s article demonstrates that Syria has a long way to go in preparing its own society to accept Israel as a peace partner,” he said.