Barak fails spin doctor test as Netanyahu climbs in polls support

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James Carville, the gritty Cajun genius behind Bill Clinton's campaign war room in the United States, came up with the slogan which turned Ehud Barak from old soldier into new prime minister. "Stuck. Stuck. Stuck," it said, indicting the performance of his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu on almost every front. Towards the end of the Israeli election trail, it ran on television almost hourly.

Nearly a year on, the same staccato mantra could be used against the man for whom it helped secure a landslide victory. The wave of giddy optimism that flooded Israel with Mr Barak's election in May has melted away. The former general is also stuck, stuck, stuck. And against all odds, Mr Netanyahu is beginning to make a serious showing in the polls.

Undeterred by persistent allegations of corruption against Mr Netanyahu and his wife, 37 per cent of Israelis surveyed by Gallup this month said they wanted the right-wing "Bibi" back in office. Perhaps more importantly, only 40 per cent declared support for the premier.

Nine months earlier, when Mr Barak took over, the same poll gave him 59 per cent, a margin of 22 per cent. The honeymoon is over. The V-shaped smile that permanently adorns the Prime Minister's face is no longer assumed to be one of confidence but of misplaced smugness. Israelis seem to be losing faith that Mr Barak, who entered office with more support than any prime minister of the country since the Sixties, can solve their chronic concerns - war, peace, internal social strains, the economy.

The Stanford-educated Prime Minister, with his IQ of 180 and aloof style, is increasingly being seen as too arrogant, and too inclined to view himself as an expert in everything. "Ehud Barak has become an increasing source of disappointment for the Israeli people," wrote Yoel Marcus, in the respected Ha'aretz newspaper.

Mr Barak's government is built on an insecure coalition. It has also been distracted by scandal over campaign financing and sex (police say Yitzhak Mordechai, a cabinet minister and confidant of Mr Barak, should be charged after complaints from three women).

But the central problem is that he has so far failed to produce tangible results to feed to the restless electorate. Mr Barak carries a laminated card on which his campaign promises are written. It is beginning to look as if the only one of these that he will fulfill is to withdraw Israel's troops from its mini-Vietnam of south Lebanon. As the prospects of a peace deal with Syria again collapsed - building has begun anew on the occupied Golan Heights - this will almost certainly be unilateral. Although Israel will loudly claim credit for finally fulfilling United Nations Resolution 425, which calls for its withdrawal, it will surely feel like a defeat.

The cries of victory from Hizbollah guerrillas, who have been fighting the Israeli occupation for years, will be hard to drown. And they will find plenty of echoes in the Arab world.

Two months before the pull-out deadline, nerves are setting in about the possibility that a wider conflict will flare up; Hizbollah have sharply stepped up hostilities in the last fortnight. Three Israeli soldiers were injured by a bomb on Thursday, and Katyusha rockets have landed across the northern border.

There are mutterings from the military that Mr Barak - who has, by Israeli standards, shown restraint in the last couple of days, not least because it is Passover and Israel's north is crowded with tourists - must strike back soon.

Other fronts look no more encouraging. For all Mr Clinton's expressions of optimism after a White House fish supper with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, last Thursday, a final peace settlementremains remote. The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, intends to travel to the region to assess progress for "very intensive work" in the next six to eight weeks.

Both sides are supposed to have a peace treaty framework ready by next month. The fundamentals, such as the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the still-expanding Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, and the amount of occupied land to be returned to the Palestinians, represent a huge gulf.

Disregarding its record of expanding Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land, its flat refusal to budge on Jerusalem, and Palestinian public opinion, Israel last week demanded more flexibility from Mr Arafat. The reply had a weary ring. "We have nothing new to add," said Hassan Asfour, a Palestinian cabinet minister. "There is no more room for flexibility."

To some extent, Mr Barak is a victim of his own image. Unlike Mr Netanyahu, he has done much to convince the West he is sincerely intent on peace. It tends to forget he is also a single-minded general, who specialises in hardball.

He wants peace, but on Israel's terms - and that is one reason why he is stuck.