Barak's allies soften up the Americans for a billion-dollar dividend

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With falling ratings and a minority government, Ehud Barak is relying on an all-out publicity drive to seal any deal he wrings out of Yasser Arafat in the next days at Camp David.

With falling ratings and a minority government, Ehud Barak is relying on an all-out publicity drive to seal any deal he wrings out of Yasser Arafat in the next days at Camp David.

The Israeli leader has established an elaborate public relations operation involving Israeli government ministers, election campaign strategists and advertising experts, pro-Barak Knesset members and several retired generals, old chums of the premier from his glory days in uniform. In the past 10 days, members of this team have been hard at work in the US presenting Israel's case, despite the official Camp David news blackout, and currying support among the Jewish lobby in the Republican- dominated US Congress for a multi-billion dollar peace pay-out. Officials have reportedly been dispatched to speak in cities across America, including Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Atlanta and Washington DC. Several key Barak supporters, led by the speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, have driven the publicity machine back home in Israel.

The operation has drawn attacks from elements from the Israeli right wing, led by a Likud parliamentarian, Limor Livnat. This week she failed to secure an injunction from the Israeli Supreme Court to bar three of Mr Barak's top PR men from the operation. She says their activities violate the law because they have been using government buildings and funds, which Mr Barak's office denies.

One intriguing target of right-wing disapproval within the team of Israelis in the US is Yossi Ginossar, an Israeli businessman with close ties to the Palestinian leadership who used to be deputy head of Israel's Shin Bet internal security service. Mr Ginossar has risen to a position of discreet influence despite a blot on his record, the so-called "Bus 300" affair in 1986 in which two Palestinian hijackers were beaten to death by Shin Bet agents.

The scandal concerned Shin Bet's efforts to cover up the killings and led to his resignation although he was later granted a presidential pardon. He now does business withthe Palestinians, and is used by Israel as a channel to Yasser Arafat when crises arise.

Other members of the Israeli PR team reveal the khaki tinge of Mr Barak's circle: they include the former chief of the Israel Defence Force's northern command, Major-General Yossi Peled and Amram Mitzna, the mayor of Haifa, the IDF's former head of central command.

The Barak camp knows it has a huge marketing job to do if a substantial new agreement with the Palestinians emerges from Camp David. Mr Barak has promised to put a deal to a referendum, the first in this nation of 6.2 million. Israeli public opinion is split between those who support his approach to peace and those who believe Israel should wring more out of the Palestinians.

The latter - dominated by the right wing and the religious - pay little heed to Israel's status as occupiers, or the harsh manner in which it has discharged that role in the past 33 years. They continue to believe Arabs are determined, sooner or later, to annihilate the Jewish state, and no peace is possible until every possible step has been taken to guarantee this does not occur.

At the heart of Mr Barak's opposition is the settlers' movement, whose hard-core believes the West Bank is Jewish soil by divine right, or is essential to Israel's security, and any withdrawal is tantamount to treachery.