Leading Article: Israel again has a leader who can fulfil its promise

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The Independent Culture
WHEN A politician's personality attracts as much opprobrium as his policies, his career is finished. And this, in a nutshell, is why the confrontational reign of Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu is over. The Israeli electorate has given Ehud Barak a resounding mandate for peace. And with that mandate comes the opportunity to close the divisions - between secularists and the orthodox, Jews of European and of Middle-Eastern descent, native Israelis and immigrants - that are tearing Israel apart.

The story of this election has two strands. The first is the collapse of the right and the fall of Mr Netanyahu, a man who has shrunk visibly while in office. Bibi's glib articulacy won Likud a slender victory in 1996, but this time round his inability to reconcile his opportunism with his reactionary ideology led to a crushing downfall. He leaves a depressing legacy, having exacerbated the conflicts in Israeli society, pitting communities against one another, setting back the hopes of peace and adding to the fragility of this young nation.

The second strand in this story is the rise of Israel's centre left and, in particular, of Ehud Barak, the former chief of staff and protege of Yitzhak Rabin. Likud failed to make any progress in settling the Palestinian problem during its three years in power; thankfully, many Israelis now accept that there is no alternative to the Oslo Accord. Mr Barak, having come to power with the Israeli people united as never before, must seize the moment to secure a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

Many Israelis will judge Mr Barak's time as Prime Minister on his handling of domestic issues such as jobs, the economy, religious issues and the integration of the Russian Jews. The rest of the world, and history, will judge him on his handling of three issues: South Lebanon, Golan and the Oslo Accord. He has committed himself to pull the army out of its self- declared security zone in southern Lebanon within one year. Given the number of conscript soldiers dying in an unwinnable war against Hizbollah, the Shiite militia, this has been a popular pledge. Putting it into practice will be more difficult, since the army will want a face-saving method of withdrawal. The future of the security zone is intimately connected with Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights, north of the Sea of Galilee. This is a more thorny issue than southern Lebanon, because there are Jewish settlements on the Heights and the land overlooks northern Israel. Though the Israeli army may want Golan demilitarised in return for their withdrawal, Syria will gain a significant reward for its agreement.

Fortunately, the Oslo Accord is initially more tractable than either Lebanon or Golan. Mr Barak must swiftly put into effect the pledges Israel made in the Wye agreement. The army should leave all the areas of the West Bank indicated in the agreement. The road between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank must be opened. Prisoners must be released. All this is feasible.

What will be more difficult is dealing with the settlers who barely recognise the authority of the Israeli government and are bristling with weapons. They may well return to violence against Arabs and acts of provocation to derail the peace. But Israelis have elected Mr Barak not only to bring them peace with the Palestinians, but also with each other. The settlers and other extremists must no longer be allowed to skew Israel from its development towards liberal democracy.

Mr Barak will today be feeling a heavy weight of history on his shoulders. But there is once again a sense that Israel has a leader who can live up to the expectations of that history. Mr Barak faces political minefields which will be trickier to negotiate than anything he has faced so far, but the prize is worth fighting for: the long-term security of Israel through the creation of a Palestinian state.