Palestinians would be wise to support Barak

Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

Abandoned by his coalition partners and backed by only about 30 percent of Israelis, Prime Minister Ehud Barak has agreed to put his political future on the line next spring, two years ahead of scheduled elections. He announced the decision to accept early elections as an overwhelming majority of the Knesset, Israel's legislature, was preparing to vote no confidence in his leadership. Barak's swift political decline began last summer when the U.S-organized Camp David summit conference failed. His peace proposals the most comprehensive ever offered by an Israeli leader were rejected by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Now two months of Israeli-Palestinian violence has further increased disappointment in Barak and impatience with the peace process he has championed.

Palestinian analysts say Barak should expect no help from Arafat as he fights to hold on to power. Two years ago Arafat quietly urged Israeli Arabs, who account for about 20 percent of the population, to support Barak. Since then, his associates say, the Palestinian leader has come to distrust Barak, which appears to mean that he won't rush to resume talks or strike a partial deal that could help vindicate the prime minister's faith in the peacemaking process.

Arafat should rethink that stand, and the Clinton administration, in its waning weeks, should do all it can to encourage him to do so. Arafat surely knows that what Israelis will be voting for isn't just their political leadership but the fate of peace efforts for years to come. An electoral victory by the right-wing Likud Party, whether headed by its current leader, Ariel Sharon, or a renascent Benjamin Yetanyahu, a former prime minister, would probably erase all the proposed concessions on territory, sovereignty and the status of East Jerusalem that Barak offered at Camp David.

Arafat scorned those concessions as insufficient, though as American officials complained he avoided making any concrete counteroffers that might have kept the bargaining going. Instead he walked away, adding further to Palestinian frustrations about the lack of progress toward statehood and setting the scene for the latest explosion of violence.

It's not the business of Palestinians to decide who will govern Israel, but who governs Israel very much concerns Palestinians. A government whose chief supporters are those determined to hold on to the West Bank won't give Palestinians the independence and dignity they seek. If Barak can restart negotiations and present at least some accomplishments to the electorate next spring he has a chance of retaining power and keeping peace efforts alive. He hopes the election can be a referendum on the peace process, but for that to happen there has to be an active process that is worthy of endorsement.

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