Barak’s Complex Foreign Policy Agenda


No. 409   17 Tammuz 5759 / 1 July 1999

Prime Minister Ehud Barak will not get a period of grace or a post-election honeymoon. Immediately upon taking office, he faces a number of pressing issues. Many of these are domestic – including religious-secular relations and economic concerns.

However, the most urgent items are in the realm of security and foreign relations. The agenda includes negotiations with thePalestinian Authority and Syria, related efforts to end the war in Lebanon, relations with the United States, problems with Russia, the threat from Iraq, the ongoing internal power struggle in Iran, efforts to thaw the “cold war” with Egypt, relating to the new ruler of Jordan, relations with Europe after the Kosovo conflict, and other important issue areas. While each issue poses it own complex and difficult problems, they are also closely interrelated, with policies and changes in one area impacting directly on another. In the Middle East, everything is related to everything, and this situation magnifies the complexity and the importance of a strategic approach to foreign and security policy.

Barak’s ability to pursue successful foreign and security policies will depend on his ability to develop realistic objectives, pursue them consistently, and maintain domestic support for difficult decisions. Beyond a coherent approach to each of these specific issues, the results will depend on the government’s ability to manage an integrated foreign and security policy, while also persuading the Israeli public to support the results. In the past, under both the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and former Prime Minister Netanyahu, the initial strategic approaches were quickly replaced by ad-hoc and tactical decision-making processes. Policy-making became largely reactive, responding to crises and pressures, both internal and external. These pressures contributed to Rabin’s sudden decision to adopt the Oslo process in 1993, and the Netanyahu government was never able to implement a strategic approach. Furthermore, both Rabin and Netanyahu relied on a very small number of individuals to develop foreign and defense policy, and failed to build a domestic consensus.

To avoid being pressed into adopting a reactive policy, Barak will need a clear strategy and a coordinated team to implement it. Although crises and unanticipated developments are inevitable, particularly in the Middle East, by anticipating possible scenarios and preparing diplomatic and military options, the disruptive impact of such events can be minimized.

First Stop: Washington

Before tackling this complex agenda, Barak, like Rabin and Netanyahu, will visit Washington. The U.S. has been and remains Israel’s primary source of strategic and diplomatic support, acting as an important force multiplier for Israel when relations are good. Israel relies on the U.S. for its major weapons platforms, as well as for assistance in developing new military technologies, such as ballistic missile defense and short-range, tactical, laser-based anti-missile systems (Nautilus). In any future withdrawal agreements, whether in Lebanon, the Golan Heights, or Judea and Samaria, Israel will rely on American cooperation in relocating military facilities and offsetting security risks. Coordination with Washington is also important in preventing terrorism, and in responding to the continuing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly in Iraq and Iran. In these central issues, Israel and America share interests and perspectives.

Despite the Clinton administration’s foreign policy failures and mistakes, the U.S. remains the world’s only superpower, and its relative strength is increasing, as demonstrated recently in Kosovo. For Israel, maintaining the special relationship with America is a top priority, and the U.S. needs close cooperation with Israel to prevent instability in the Middle East. Although the Netanyahu and Clinton teams did not get along very well (to understate the case), both the U.S. and Israel recognize the need to repair the damage. The Barak government must develop close ties with both the Executive Branch and Congress, and avoid allowing Israeli policy and interests to become entangled in American domestic politics. (In the 1996 Israeli election campaign, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk openly sided with Shimon Peres and opposed Netanyahu. In response, after the election, Netanyahu used the Republican-controlled Congress to offset criticism and pressure from the White House and State Department. This strategy failed when the Republicans did poorly in the 1998 elections and Newt Gingrich, Netanyahu’s main ally, resigned.)

Beyond cooperation in specific issue areas, style and “body language” are of central importance. The “special relationship” with the U.S. has been a vital pillar of Israel’s security for decades. This special relationship is based on a sense of shared democratic values as well as an understanding that both countries face the same threats from terrorism and from rogue states. Frequent consultation and visible signs of support are important in maintaining this relationship, and after erosion during the Netanyahu era, Barak will need to work with Clinton and his successor to reinforce the symbols as well as the substance of this relationship.

Substantively, the American-Israeli agenda includes all the issues that face Barak: the Palestinians, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Egypt, etc. Each requires detailed discussion in an effort to avoid sharp differences. Some disagreements are inevitable, as the U.S. and Israel are sovereign states whose interests and perspectives cannot always coincide precisely, but these can be managed diplomatically to insure that they do not lead to wider problems in the relationship. In some areas, the U.S. and Israel will have to agree to disagree.

Negotiations with the Palestinians are likely to provide one area of disagreement. President Clinton and his administration are committed to the implementation of the October 1998 Wye agreement. In addition to possible differences regarding Palestinian commitments to end incitement and hate speech (the Netanyahu government provided extensive evidence of Palestinian non-compliance), there are also broad gaps in approach. While the White House and the State Department’s “Middle East peace team” apparently still support the step-by-step process created under the Oslo agreement (the 1993 Declaration of Principles), Barak is on record as opposing the surrender of tangible assets (land and security) without agreement on the end point. While Barak may be willing to take more risks than Netanyahu, and support for settlements will be reduced drastically, his approach differs sharply from that of Peres, Beilin, and Savir.

Even if Barak agrees to implement Wye, as a first step, the main emphasis will be on the permanent status negotiations, which were specified in the Oslo formula. This will be a complex process (as detailed below), and Israel and the Palestinians will be competing for American support. To avoid confrontation and instability, it is important for Barak to reach agreement on “red lines” with the U.S. in these issue areas. The Clinton administration has invested a great deal in the relationship with Arafat, and can play an important role in convincing the Palestinians to end their incitement and strengthen policies that have prevented terrorism in the past months.

Iran is another area of importance for cooperation between Jerusalem and Washington. The combination of the internal struggle in Iran, and the continued Iranian development of missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD), as well as support for terrorism and anti-Israel extremism, requires the development of a carefully nuanced policy. Both Israel and the U.S. seek policies that will encourage political changes in Iran to reduce the level of confrontation and military threat, while at the same time maintaining policy instruments, such as sanctions, to slow the pace of development of destabilizing military capabilities, and developing appropriate military responses (offensive and defensive). In this area of central strategic importance, coordination between the U.S. and Israel is vital. The recent arrest of Iranian Jewish leaders charged with spying for Israel has increased the salience of policy coordination.

Negotiating with the Palestinians: Why Wye?

Ehud Barak was never a big supporter of the Oslo process. Although he was very close to the late Yitzhak Rabin and served as IDF Chief of Staff when Rabin was prime minister, he disagreed strongly with his patron’s policies with respect to these negotiations, recognizing the weaknesses long before things began to fall apart. After he left the military and joined the government, Barak continued to warn of the dangers of giving up strategic assets without a clear objective. In 1995, as a member of the cabinet, Barak was the only minister to abstain on the Cairo agreement (also known as Oslo 2), under which significant portions of Judea and Samaria were transferred to the Palestinian Authority.

Now as prime minister, Barak is faced with a number of deadlines and agreements. He is under pressure from within and without (including the U.S.) to implement the Wye Agreement without further delay. Supporters of this policy argue that the Palestinians have implemented their end of the deal by stopping terrorism (although the incitement continues, particularly in the form of the world-wide campaign to condemn Israel for violations of the Geneva Convention, and presentation of UN Resolution 181 from 1947 as the basis for negotiations), and it is now up to Israel to withdraw from the areas specified at Wye.

The problem is that implementation of Wye would continue the incremental process, while Barak has indicated that strategically, he prefers to go directly to the “permanent status negotiations” as specified in the Oslo agreement. If Israel and the Palestinians reach agreement regarding permanent status, and if Wye is consistent with this agreement, then it will be implemented. On the other hand, if this effort ends in disagreement, and Arafat declares a Palestinian state unilaterally, the process that began in Oslo will end, and there is no purpose (from the Israeli perspective) in giving up more land and security assets.

There are many obstacles to agreement on permanent status, and the prospects for success in one year to eighteen months are close to zero. Each of the issues on the agenda – Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, borders, and water – are extremely complex, and the gap between Israeli and Palestinian expectations remains wide. On the basis of his own evaluations of Israeli interests, and also in terms of the political balance of power within Israel, Barak seems unlikely to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians on any of these issues in this time period. Neither Rabin nor Netanyahu had the political resources to withdraw from a single settlement, and although Barak was elected by a wide majority, his party received 26 of the 120 seats in the Knesset (less than one-quarter), and his power base is quite narrow. In order to avoid intense domestic conflict on this sensitive issue, Barak will have to proceed cautiously.

At the same time, the leaders of the Palestinian Authority have not prepared their public for changes and concessions in traditional positions. Discussions regarding refugees still include demands that Israel accept some sort of moral and historical responsibility for their plight, which is a non-starter for any Israeli government. (By the same token, Israel would demand that the Palestinians accept responsibility and apologize for the wars and terrorist attacks over the past decades.) Similar gaps in expectations exist with respect to borders and demands for a Palestinian capital in eastern Jerusalem. None of these positions are realistic, and Palestinian inflexibility will lead to an impasse.

In this environment, the Barak government may consider a “third way” – long-term interim agreements instead of “permanent status” (a mythical concept that is not found in relations between states, which are governed by shifting power relationships, crises, conflicts, and changes in borders). The best chance for agreement in the short term might be based on substantial Israeli withdrawals in the five areas near the major Palestinian population concentrations, giving the PA control of about half of the land in Judea and Samaria, but excluding strategically crucial areas such as the Jordan Valley and east-west corridors. At the same time, areas vital to Israeli security would be annexed to Israel, by agreement. In areas where no agreement is possible, the status quo would prevail, negotiations would continue, and, assuming that terrorism is not resumed and incitement ends, future pacts can be reached. This is probably as much as the Israeli domestic situation will allow, in terms of territorial withdrawal, at this time.

At the same time, the Barak government must also be prepared to respond to a resumption of terrorism. In the past, the Palestinian leadership has responded to disagreement with terror, as a means of putting pressure on Israel to make concessions. Many Palestinians view the intifada as a successful military campaign (although the Palestinians suffered far more than Israel), which forced Israel to begin discussions with the PLO. Similarly, Hizbollah’s success in pressuring Israel to change its position in Lebanon is also seen as an example to be followed by the Palestinians.

In this context, Barak must emphasize that the PA’s recent efforts to prevent terror cannot be a passing fad of the Netanyahu era, but must be permanent. If Arafat uses or permits terror again, the Israeli response will be swift and strong, endangering all of the achievements since 1993, including Palestinian autonomy. To prevent a resort to violence, Barak needs to strengthen Israeli deterrence, while also pursuing agreements.

Lebanon (With or Without Syria)

In the midst of the 1999 election campaign, following Hizbollah attacks in which Erez Gerstein, the commander of IDF operati

Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg

Professor Gerald Steinberg is president of NGO Monitor and professor of Political Studies at Bar Ilan University. His research interests include international relations, Middle East diplomacy and security, the politics of human rights and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Israeli politics and arms control.