Barak's Triumph: Palestinians hope for revival of peace accord

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The Independent Online
"IF I HAD been born a Palestinian, I would have joined a terrorist organisation," said Ehud Barak, Israel's prime minister-elect, to a television interviewer last year with what his opponents hoped would be electorally calamitous honesty.

This expression of empathy with the Palestinian plight did Mr Barak no damage at the polls, though he was careful not to repeat it. In the campaign he emphasised his military credentials, illustrated by macho television commercials, to show how tough he would be on security, while fulfilling the terms of the Oslo accords signed with the Palestinians five years ago.

Palestinians are now waiting to see what this means in practice. "Is Barak going to use his massive victory to make massive progress towards peace?" asks Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian commentator. "He could use his momentum to move fast or he could play a waiting game."

Palestinians do not know Mr Barak well. He played no immediate role in suppressing the intifada (uprising) against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after 1987. They look to the composition of his government, inevitably a coalition of parties given the political fragmentation in Israel, as the first strong hint of the direction he intends to go.

If the new cabinet is strongly centre-left then Mr Barak can implement unfulfilled-stages of the Oslo accords at speed. If he includes in his government parties from the nationalist right, committed to giving as little to the Palestinians as possible, then it will move more slowly. Another sign of where Mr Barak's intentions towards them lie would be the immediate implementation of the Wye Agreement of last October. This was signed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, passed by the Knesset (parliament), but never implemented.

Under the Wye Agreement, Israel should continue a partial withdrawal from the West Bank, open a corridor between Gaza and the West Bank and release Palestinian prisoners. Mr Netanyahu refused to do so, claiming Palestinian non- compliance, an excuse rejected by the United States, which brokered the agreement.

Mr Khatib is also waiting to see "if Barak stops settlement expansion on the West Bank or not". Mr Netanyahu increased the number of settlers from 150,000 to 180,000 and poured money into the West Bank to house them. Even during the election on Monday, when most of Israel was on holiday, two earth movers were busily constructing a new industrial site for the Jewish settlement of Ofra outside Ramallah.

In theory Mr Barak has made his views plain. He will continue where Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated in 1995, left off. He will separate Israelis and Palestinians. "There are 5.5 million Israelis and 2.5 million Palestinians between the Jordan [river] and the sea," he told an interviewer just after he entered politics. "If we don't want apartheid here, or Bosnia or `transfer' we have no choice but to separate the two communities."

His chances of doing this should be greater than Mr Rabin's. The nationalist right did badly in the elections. The National Religious Party, for which most settlers vote, was yesterday reviewing a serious drop in its vote. For the first time there is a purely Jewish majority, not dependent on the votes of Israeli-Arab members of the Knesset, for a territorial compromise and withdrawal from the West Bank.

Expectations of what Mr Barak will achieve are already soaring in the US, Europe and the Arab world. They are fuelled in part by delight at seeing the back of Mr Netanyahu. They believe the peace process will pick up momentum fast. "It's possible that with such high expectations, disappointments might turn out to be great as well," writes Shimon Shiffer an Israeli commentator in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. "Barak is not Peace Now (the Israeli peace organisation)."

The problem for the Palestinians is that the Oslo accords in practice have meant a great deal more separation between Palestinian and Palestinian than between Israeli and Palestinian. What Mr Rabin envisaged was closer to the apartheid that Mr Barak decries. Palestinians from the West Bank were unable to get into Jerusalem. Gaza was sealed off. The autonomous West Bank towns became isolated cantons. Freedom of movement was sharply curtailed and the Palestinian standard of living fell by 30 per cent.

All this happened before Mr Netanyahu took office in 1996. Implementation of the Wye Agreement would alleviate this. But it would not change the Palestinian predicament. Mr Barak has also set "red lines" that he will not cross. These include ceding any sovereignty over Jerusalem and retention of most settlements. Since these are subjects for the final- status talks between Israel and the Palestinians, there is not much left to talk about.

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