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Barak's Election Is Only a Partial Victory

Israel: American Jews must now push him to fully implement Oslo accords.

May 19, 1999|MICHAEL LERNER | Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine and author of "Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation" (HarperCollins, 1996), is the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco

Americans have much to celebrate in the overwhelming mandate given to Ehud Barak by Israeli voters. In the last days of the campaign, Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak both made clear that this was a decisive referendum on the peace process, and now the voters have given Barak the power to take decisive action.

Dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv, celebrants are calling on Barak to pick up and start where slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin left off three years ago. But Barak is no closet dove, and though he is likely to make some dramatic trips to meet with Arab and Palestinian leaders, he is not so likely to follow through with decisive actions that would allow the Palestinian people their own state--the only concession likely to create a lasting settlement.

In fact, Barak's victory poses a new challenge for President Clinton and for American Jews. We may now have to pressure Barak to move in a decisive way toward peace. Barak is in danger of repeating the mistakes of Shimon Peres--squelching opportunities in pursuit of a centrist consensus in Israel that would be impossible to achieve. In the weeks after Rabin's assassination by an Israeli rightist, then-Prime Minister Peres failed to use the outrage of that moment to escalate the peace process, dismantle West Bank settlements and stop the torture of Palestinians that had continued even as Rabin moved slowly to implement the Oslo accords. Believing that he needed to show his centrist credentials, Peres refused to criticize the assassination of a Palestinian terrorist, thus breaking the de facto cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. When Palestinian terrorists predictably responded with an outrageous assault on Israeli buses, many Israelis despaired of peace and elected Netanyahu.

Barak may be tempted to make a similar mistake, to focus more on building unity with those he has defeated and portraying himself as a centrist than with ending the conflict. The rationale: fearing an armed revolt by settlers, the first task is to conciliate the center. It was this same reasoning that led Rabin to go slow implementing Oslo, but going slow did not pacify the right, which continued to engage in provocative acts. Unless Barak acts decisively to signal Palestinians that he intends to make significant concessions beyond the Wye accords, many Palestinians may legitimately conclude that they are not much better off under Barak than they were under Netanyahu--and from that despair there might be a return to terrorism.

The real task of the Israeli government today is not to placate the right but to take decisive steps to create a Palestinian state that will live in peace with Israel. Those steps will have to include allowing the tens of thousands of Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem to become part of the emerging Palestinian state, the dismantling of those West Bank settlements most committed to disrupting the peace process and the release from prison of Palestinians held without charges or benefit of due process. It must also include a rhetoric of reconciliation.

Rabin's major breakthrough occurred when he began to acknowledge that Israel faced no serious security risk from a Palestinian state. It was only the night of his assassination that Rabin began to talk in a positive language about Palestinians. He recognized that by not acknowledging the Palestinians' deep yearning for peace, he was playing into the hands of the Israeli right. Barak must go further, talking to the Israeli public about why a Palestinian state will be in Israel's interests and why the already-divided Jerusalem ought to be the capital of both states.

Israelis are willing to follow a strong leader toward peace, but not a waffler. If Barak puts more of his energy on building bridges to the Israeli settlers and their domestic supporters who did their best to destabilize the Rabin government, he will find that this moment of hope and possibility is lost. Doves in the Labor Party are already calling American supporters to begin a campaign to get the Clinton administration to support a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. They argue that the administration should no longer remain a neutral broker, but should put forward its own substantive vision of a final settlement agreement, and that might give Barak support to move in a similar direction.

American Jews have a great deal of work to do, and we will only be able to fully celebrate when Barak successfully completes the Oslo process. Yet there is one thing that we can celebrate unequivocally: our pride in our Israeli sisters and brothers who chose peace over obstructionist politics. Our task is to make sure that their will is not thwarted, either by another assassin from the right, or by the weakness or misguided centrism of Barak.

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