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October 17, 2007

Ehud Barak turns his back on dovish past


October 17, 2007


OCCUPIED-AL-QUDS: For Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the future seems to be about the past and how to disown it.

Keen to reclaim the premiership he lost in 2001 after just 22 months, he’s cast off the dovish image that defined that brief tenure.

Now, the man who offered the Palestinians unprecedented concessions in his last days in office, only to be spurned, is repackaging himself as a hardliner to compete with that other former prime minister with an eye on his old job, the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu.

“If he was burnt previously, he is probably reticent now,” said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Occupied al-Quds.

“He’s holding back before promising anything.” Barak, as head of the centre-left Labour Party, could provide key backing and stabilize Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition at a time when Israel and Palestinians are trying once again to reach an elusive peace accord.

He endorses negotiations with the Palestinians, but with a caveat that Israel move slowly and carefully “to protect our own security interests,” as he recently told party allies.

Having talked compromise and failed Barak is now talking tough. He has reportedly dismissed talk of a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal as “fantasy.”

As defense minister, he has not followed through on Olmert’s pledges to ease roadblocks and other travel restrictions that have made movement in the West Bank a nightmare for Palestinians.

He also has not challenged Jewish settlers who have set up rogue out posts in the West Bank. Even as Olmert talks of withdrawing from the West Bank, Barak says Israel should stay in the area for at least 2 1/2 years while it develops a missile defense system.

He cites Israel’s experience in the Gaza Strip, where rocket squads have repeatedly fired at Israel since its withdrawal from the area two years ago.

He has repeatedly

said a broad military operation in Gaza is only a matter of time.

Barak turned down an Associated Press request for an interview. He is in the US this week on his first official visit since being appointed defense minister in June.

There, he is expected to discuss his assessments of peace prospects and missile defense systems.

Born in 1942 on a communal farm, Barak spent 36 years in the armed forces, becoming Israel’s most decorated soldier and serving as military chief from 1991-95.

After leaving the military, he joined the government of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Barak subsequently routed Netanyahu in 1999 elections, promising to reach a comprehensive Mideast peace.

But as prime minister, he found it hard to translate his reputation as a brilliant military strategist into the rough-and-tumble world of Mideast politics, and his efforts to make peace with Syria and the Palestinians failed.

The outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising against Israel in September 2000 capped his political downfall, and he found himself voted out of office by an Israeli public traumatized by the new violence.

Barak disappeared from politics for years after his drubbing earning millions as a private consultant and on the lecture circuit before recapturing the Labour leadership in June.

That month, he joined Olmert’s coalition government as defense minister, making it clear he intends to use the job to try to reclaim the premiership.

Elections are scheduled for 2010, but could be moved up if Olmert’s government crumbles over peace moves, or if corruption investigations force him to leave office.

Polls show Netanyahu would win if elections were held today, but second-place Barak has been narrowing the gap.

Widely regarded as an arrogant and overbearing premier, Barak says he learned from his mistakes and would make a better leader this time.

If nothing else, he seems to be in tune with the Israeli public’s scepticism about peacemaking.

In his waning days as premier, Barak supported by US President Bill Clinton went further than any other Israeli leader by proposing to withdraw from more than 90 per cent of the West Bank.

Bolder still, he became the first Israeli leader to offer sharing disputed and occupied al-Quds with the Palestinians a notion Olmert has recently endorsed.

Today, Barak takes a harder line. Israelis “can’t be fed more fantasies about an upcoming agreement with the Palestinians,” the Yediot Ahronot newspaper recently.




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