Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of May 19, 1999


By Dr. Aaron Lerner

The only way Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak can effectively pursue the peace process while maintaining the national unity we so desperately need is by jumping now to truly final-status talks. This is a move that friends of peace everywhere should encourage, rather than undermine. Let's get one thing clear: Contrary to Shimon Peres's gloating, Monday's elections do not signify an endorsement of his leftist ideology, but rather disgust with Netanyahu's performance. Only the pathologically blind can really believe that when the likes of Benny Begin vote for Barak they have joined the Peres camp.

The votes for Lapid's Shinui Party were against the haredim - not the Hermon. The vote for Amir Peretz was for paychecks - not Palestine. And the Central Party does not deny that the votes they received came from ex-Likudniks who would never vote Left.

The country remains very much divided over Oslo. Some two weeks before the election, the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace research survey of adult Israeli Jews found only 48.7% favoring the Oslo Accords. And while Peres and others will claim that Monday's vote is a mandate to leave the Golan, only 27.7% support full withdrawal from the Golan in exchange for a full peace treaty between Israel and Syria.

Truly final final-status talks are talks that cover all the issues, leaving nothing open - be it Jerusalem or refugees or any other thorny issue - to shatter an agreement in the future. These are negotiations for an agreement that is not just another "stage" in a program of stages whose "final stage" in much of the Palestinians' rhetoric is a Middle East without a Jewish state.

Unfortunately, Barak now faces pressure, from many of the same people who supported his election, both here and in the White House, to fritter away his public support on painful and dangerous interim activities. Activities that, if the final-status talks fail, would leave Israel in a far worse position on the ground than it is in today.

Here is the puzzle: It is a tenet of faith of these same interim-withdrawal supporters that the only obstacle to a truly permanent agreement was Netanyahu's obstinacy. With Barak at the table what can be gained by wasting time - and national unity - on interim activity? After all, whatever interim steps not implemented to date can readily be incorporated into the final deal.

Barak's reaction to this pressure will ultimately determine if he is leading us to the true, secure peace the nation yearns for or, instead, down the amorphous path of concessions followed by both previous administrations.

While in the case of the PLO, Barak is being pressed to "withdraw first, negotiate later," on the Syrian front he must deal with those who seek not peace for generations, but a deal for the hour.

They will seek security based on technological "solutions" doomed to obsolescence; reliance on the goodwill of neighboring governments with unpredictable futures and would pin Israel's very survival on the guarantees of foreign governments whose future desire or ability to deliver on those guarantees can't necessarily be counted on.

No one questions Barak's intellect. The question is whether, in trying to "square the circle" he will succumb to the temptation to sacrifice intellectual honesty for short-term achievements - the photo opportunities that the Jewish state has been served up during its last two governments. For all of our sakes, I hope not.

If Barak succeeds in cutting a truly comprehensive peace deal with Yasser Arafat or Hafez Assad, then his success will be a blessing for all of us, regardless of our political stripe. On the other hand, if after making a good-faith effort, Barak finds that Arafat's demands in the final-status talks are not acceptable or that truly workable arrangements cannot be reached with Assad, he can rest assured that the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public will accept Barak's decision to reject them.

This is an advantage that Barak enjoys over Netanyahu and any alternative from the national camp. Besides endorsing the jump to the final-status talks, the Clinton administration can promote peace via a series of confidence-building measures to help Barak face the difficult challenges ahead.

These include: agreeing to Israel's use of its own ELTA radar in the ending jet deal; finalizing the remaining funding to bring the Nautilus anti-Katyusha laser defense system on-line promptly (and providing the laser control codes so that its range can be extended beyond Katyushas); and putting the unfortunate Pollard episode behind us.

Ultimately, the choice of path is Barak's alone. But his choices, possibly more than any made by a prime minister since the days of Ben-Gurion, will determine Israel's destiny.


Dr. Aaron Lerner is the Director IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis)
POB 982 Kfar Sava, Israel
Tel 972-9-7604719
Fax 972-9-7411645

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