The mystery of Mr Barak

Israelis are still perplexed about what goes on inside his mind, behind that tight-lipped smile
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EHUD BARAK became Prime Minister of Israel yesterday with the immense advantage of succeeding Benjamin Netanyahu, who, in three years, became the most widely detested Israeli leader at home and abroad since the formation of the state. Mr Netanyahu is now expected to disappear, unlamented in Israel, on to the American lecture tour circuit, though there are no signs of anybody offering the $60,000 he is asking for a single speech.

Mr Barak's problem is that his election victory, so much more decisive than forecast, has created great, and probably exaggerated, expectations. He himself is not modest about his aims, promising to bring "an end to the 100-year dispute in the Middle East". He pledged during the election campaign to bring Israeli troops home from Lebanon within a year. This means signing a peace treaty with Syria whereby Israel will withdraw from the Golan Heights, captured in 1967 and now home to 17,000 Israeli settlers.

He will also resume negotiations with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, on a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Despite his misgivings he will have little choice but to implement the agreement reached, but never implemented, by Mr Netanyahu under American pressure at the Wye Plantation in Maryland last year.

On the face of it, Mr Barak will simply be resuming where the last Labour government left off three years ago. But some Israelis wonder whether the renewed peace negotiations will produce the same explosive consequences as in the first half of the Nineties, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was shot in the back by a nationalist student, and Palestinian suicide bombers were blowing themselves up in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Mr Barak has certain advantages over Mr Rabin. The election in May was a disaster for the nationalist right. They were split between those who would accept no withdrawal from the West Bank as the land God gave to the Jews and those, like Mr Netanyahu, who would make limited territorial concessions. The party that was dedicated to keeping the Golan got fewer votes than the Green Leaf party, which wants to legalise cannabis. Mr Netanyahu also failed, despite his personal inclinations, to reverse the Oslo Accords signed with the Palestinians in 1993. He never dared send Israeli troops into the autonomous Palestinian enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank.

For all its many failings, Oslo does represent a certain balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians, however much it favours the Israelis. But Oslo also contained two weaknesses, which proved difficult for Mr Rabin and his government. The whole process was so drawn-out that there was plenty of time for anybody who wanted to derail it by bomb or bullet to do so. Any balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians was a deeply unstable one. Despite all the self-congratulatory speeches on the White House lawn, Palestinians found they were living in isolated Bantustans with less freedom of movement than before.

Oslo did not do enough to satisfy the Palestinians, but it did enrage the militant Israeli settlers. In 1994 an army reserve captain called Baruch Goldstein fired his sub-machine gun into the backs of worshippers in the main mosque in Hebron, killing 29 of them. Less than two years later Israeli security men, trained to see all threats as coming from Palestinians, ignored Yigal Amir as he waited to kill Mr Rabin at the end of a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Could it all happen again? Possibly, but not in the same way. Settlers on the West Bank no longer enjoy the support in Israel they once did. This is partly because of the assassination of Mr Rabin. Israeli security watches them more closely. And Israelis have got used to Mr Arafat, once demonised in Israel, living down the road in Gaza.

Mr Barak also has a much broader base of support than Mr Rabin. The election in May saw the most sweeping political changes since the Israeli Labour Party lost its monopoly of power in 1977. For all Mr Netanyahu's efforts, the issue that moved voters was not the Arab threat, but relations between the different Jewish communities in Israel. There was a powerful secular backlash against the ultra-orthodox. Most of the mainly secular Russian immigrants defected to Mr Barak.

The danger for Mr Barak was that while he won 56 per cent of the vote against Mr Netanyahu, his own party got only 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. If the Israeli electorate had given with one hand, they had taken away with the other. He could always put together a coalition government, but in the past Israeli national unity governments have been too divided internally to make any real decisions.

In the event, after seven weeks of negotiations Mr Barak yesterday presented a government with 75 members of the Knesset. He rejected an alliance with Likud, Mr Netanyahu's party, when it demanded veto power over withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan. Instead he brought in Shas, the ultra- orthodox party that draws its support from Jews from the Arab world, but has always been ready to accept territorial compromise.

Mr Barak now has as broad and coherent a coalition as anybody is likely to get in Israel. The religious parties know they will have to vote for some form of territorial withdrawal, even if they have to grit their teeth when they do so. The same may be true of Natan Sharansky's Yisrael Ba'aliya party, representing Russian immigrants. At the end of the day none of the religious or ethnic parties dared to cut off their own communities' access to power and money by going into opposition.

The real mystery in the government remains Ehud Barak himself. In just over three years the former army chief-of-staff has made himself leader of the Labour party, won an election and formed a broad-based government. Yet Israelis are still perplexed about what goes on behind Mr Barak's tight-lipped smile in his well-organised and secretive mind.

So far he has had the great advantage of having Mr Netanyahu as an opponent. The election was largely a referendum on the former prime minister's failings. Mr Barak's greatest success was in keeping his mouth shut during the election while Mr Netanyahu self-destructed. The Israeli media gave him an easy ride and senior members of his own Labour party fell silent as they waited to see what jobs they would get.

As of yesterday this honeymoon is over. Disappointed Labour leaders are beginning to criticise Mr Barak's habit of behaving like the commando leader he once was. "They want Ehud Barak not Ehud Bonaparte," said one Israeli commentator. After Mr Barak tried and failed to impose his own untried nominee as speaker of the Knesset last weekend, the daily Ma'ariv said Mr Barak had proved once again "that the only people in whom he reposits trust are unambitious yes-men". This is probably unfair. Mr Barak does not have Mr Netanyahu's shallow arrogance or self-destructive compulsion to quarrel with his closest political allies. He may also see that an Israeli prime minister has enough authority to tempt him to rule alone, but not enough to do so successfully.

The long-term threat to Mr Barak is simply that he will fail. He will be buoyed up at first by the welcome he gets from President Clinton when he visits Washington later in the month. The Arab world was delighted by his victory. Even the Syrian President Hafez al-Assad described him as "a strong and honest man". By October he will be engaged in negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians.

But while an agreement with Syria may be easier to reach, it is relations between Israelis and Palestinians that are at the heart of Israel's relations with the Arab world. Mr Barak says his aim is separation of Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinian leaders say that separation without the right to travel and work where they want becomes apartheid. The 100-year dispute Mr Barak wants to end is far from over.