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Opening the Public Debate for Normality

September 10, 2000|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, who lived in Jerusalem for four years, has written about the Middle East for the New Yorker. She is writing a book about Jerusalem

NEW YORK — Ehud Barak is a military man with many hobbies. He is a piano player, a watchmaker and a lock picker. Legend has it he can open anything.

This doesn't mean he holds the keys to peace, however. As international leaders met for the U.N. get-together in New York last week, it looked increasingly unlikely that President Bill Clinton's elevator diplomacy would bring the Israelis and Palestinians, both on different floors of the Waldorf-Astoria, to an agreement.

But that doesn't negate Barak's mastery at breaking things open. At Camp David, he put Jerusalem on the negotiating table for the first time, publicly, and so opened one of the most securely locked boxes in the world: the box of Israeli family secrets. What flew out was this important secret: Israelis do not monolithically oppose partitioning Jerusalem.

Indeed, it is quite possible a sizable majority can stomach it, if the overall deal with the Palestinians means peace for good, or, at least, a reasonably long time.

Laying this out for the world to see has been therapeutic for the Israeli body politic. After all, a family secret is more harmful and more potent when it remains under wraps than when it is brought out in the open to be examined, even if the examination is painful and causes ruptures. In the end, it will turn out to have been a brave and valuable thing Barak did at Camp David.

It's brave because it means Israelis can no longer pretend a "united" Jerusalem is a linchpin of the state. It means the status of the city is now open to debate among all Israelis, not just a couple of back-channel councilors and one or two head honchos in the foreign ministry's diplomatic corps. But this does not mean the Palestinians are wrong to complain that what Barak is suggesting is not enough, or to point out that the only thing he's done is to offer, publicly, what was already, covertly, on offer six years ago.

What Barak has done is to open up a national debate. As everyone knows, especially everyone who's ever seen a Knesset session, Israelis enjoy nothing more than a debate, an argument, a little give and take, even an all-out, pitched mudslinging fight, as long as it's all in the family. That's what Barak has provoked.

Of course, it's entirely possible he will be the victim of his own truth telling. Often (we've seen it repeatedly on Oprah), the family member who reveals the dark secret is ostracized and rejected, usually by members of the family most involved in keeping the secret, most implicated in it. This is certainly true in Barak's case.

Barak's revelations have left him more vulnerable than the usual prime minister because they are of a far greater significance. In July, he revealed to the Israeli public that South Lebanon--or the Security Zone, as Israel called it--was not crucial to Israel's security. Now he's made it clear that Jerusalem can be negotiated. Both these initiatives threaten the status quo not so much of the average Israeli, who applauded the departure from Lebanon and has shown no immovable rejection of Jerusalem's division, but of the average right-wing Knesset member. The hawks have lost their Lebanon: Though the Israeli Defense Forces have withdrawn, Hezbollah has refrained from pummeling Israel's northern border, leaving Ariel Sharon's Likud Party and Eli Yishai's (formerly convicted embezzler Aryeh Deri's) Shas Party with little to bewail. That leaves only one other enemy for Likud and Shas to vent over: those perennial Palestinians. With Jerusalem out of the closet, Barak is menacing his political rivals with peace, potentially neutralizing their final antagonist, as well.

So it is not surprising that since Camp David, Barak's political fortunes have plummeted, and now--having lost the support of the right-wing ultrareligious Shas Party--he is hanging on to power by a slim majority of one Knesset member. This does not necessarily mean he will fall. The Knesset always seems a shaky place to stand, but Israeli governments, no matter how rocky their support, are not prone to collapsing.

During every prime minister's tenure, there usually comes a dramatic moment when a key party threatens to pull out of a coalition and abandon the prime minister. First comes the threat, followed by a lot of bargaining, haggling, horse-trading and deal-making. When the sandstorm settles, the prime minister usually goes on in office, unperturbed and not much impeded.

Still, a majority of one is not a comfortable majority, and more than theoretically, Barak could tumble from power. What he's preaching, from the Israeli point of view, is little less than a revolution in national--or, better yet, nationalist--thinking. He's saying that for its psychic survival Israel no longer needs a looming enemy to plan against, battle against, strive to eliminate. He's saying we are not necessarily under attack on all borders.

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