Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Prime Minister Barak’s First Year: Diplomacy and Politics

Filed under: Europe and Israel, International Law, Israel, Israeli Security, Palestinians, Peace Process, The Middle East, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 433   29 Sivan 5760 / 2 July 2000


An Optimistic Beginning

Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s tenure started out with almost everything going his way. He had what was often, though misleadingly, described as a “landslide victory” in the 1999 elections (though, in truth, Jewish voters gave him only a slim 3.2 percent majority over Netanyahu – compared to the almost 12 percent margin by which Netanyahu had defeated Peres in the previous elections). Nonetheless, it is true that Barak achieved better electoral results than most other prime ministers in Israeli history. As a result, no Israeli prime minister in recent memory had begun his term with a greater degree of goodwill from different segments of the population – including many who had voted for the other candidate.

Barak swiftly mended fences with our all-important American ally, especially with the White House, though it soon transpired that, paradoxically, his close relationship with the Clinton administration – which perhaps had its beginnings even before he became prime minister – sometimes also created constraints on Israel’s freedom of action in certain matters.

Undoubtedly, there was an initial feeling of optimism in all spheres. The process of improving relations with the European Union (EU) and of widening Israel’s diplomatic relations was also expanded. Israel’s association status with the EU was completed. European governments reached a consensus for the first time to agree to limited admittance of Israel to the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) at the United Nations, which will eventually permit Israel to be nominated to the UN Security Council and other key UN bodies. At the funeral of King Hassan of Morocco, Barak exchanged words with Algerian President Abdel-aziz Bouteflika, which raised the possibility of new Israeli ties in the Arab world. All in all, many people felt that “peace with security” could actually be achieved as promised.

Yet for many of Barak’s supporters, the greater the expectations, the greater the disappointment. Objectively speaking, many of the targets Barak set for himself would have been unachievable in any case. For example, how realistic was it to speak of an ” end of the Arab-Israel conflict in one year”?

The Peace Process: What Happened to Reciprocity?

With regard to the peace process, according to some observers – and not necessarily only in Israel – Barak has shown a surprising lack of proficiency in his negotiating tactics. He squandered his predecessor’s important achievement of lowering the extreme expectations of the Palestinians – raising them instead. His readiness to rashly turn over Arab villages adjacent to Jerusalem, like Abu Dis, to full Palestinian control (Area A status) only fueled PLO expectations about gaining a foothold in Jerusalem itself in a final status agreement. Barak did not hold PLO Chairman Arafat sufficiently accountable when he instigated large-scale Palestinian violence in May – including by the Palestinian police – as a means of putting pressure on Israel. Indeed, Barak pushed approval of the handing over of Abu Dis through the Knesset on the very day that Palestinian police were firing on Israeli solders.

There is little doubt that one of the factors affecting Palestinian behavior was the removal of the concept of reciprocity from the peace process. During the period of the Netanyahu government, reciprocity was woven into the implementation of Israeli-Palestinian accords. After an unprecedented upsurge in terrorist bombings in the heart of Israeli cities from 1994 through early 1996, it was essential to find a means of assuring Palestinian compliance with the anti-terrorism obligations in the Oslo Agreements before more land would be turned over. In the 1997 Hebron Protocol, the two sides first agreed, in principle , to structuring the entire implementation of the 1993 Oslo Agreement on the basis of reciprocity. The U.S. formally agreed to this formulation when U.S. peace coordinator Dennis Ross signed the “Note for the Record.” But it was in the 1998 Wye Agreement that reciprocity moved from a matter of principle to part of the very fabric of the accord. Implementation of Palestinian commitments – particularly with respect to the dismantling of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad military infrastructure – became a prerequisite for moving from one phase to the next in implementing Wye.

Just recently, Barak’s Interior Minister, Natan Sharansky, who also participated in the Wye negotiations, bitterly complained in a New York Times Op-Ed piece on June 5, 2000, about the loss of reciprocity: “When Ehud Barak came to power, determined to breathe new life into the peace process, he quickly abandoned the principle of reciprocity. Now all Palestinian commitments have been forgotten and the days of good will gestures to the Palestinians for the sake of improved climate have returned.”

By giving up on reciprocity, Barak was taking a calculated risk. For example, he did not make the collection of illegal firearms a precondition for more territorial withdrawals. Notably, in the case of the Irish Agreement, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was willing to freeze the peace process until the Irish Republican Army showed that it was ready to disarm. By removing reciprocity, Barak seemed overly eager to reach an agreement. It is not surprising that, under such conditions, Palestinian expectations have increased along with greater pressure for further Israel concessions.

Against perhaps Prime Minister Barak’s own better judgment, he promised the Palestinians a Palestinian state in most of the territories, abandoning long-held, important Israeli security positions – without getting anything in return. Barak now appears ready to abandon Israel’s claim to the Jordan Valley, long designated by past Israeli strategists as a vital area for Israel’s defense. It is ironic that Barak, who views himself as the late Yitzhak Rabin’s successor, is conceding the Jordan Valley, which was viewed to be so critical by both Rabin and his mentor, Yigal Allon.

On the Syrian track, Barak was saved by the bell from giving in to the intransigent demands of the late Syrian president, who demanded more than the Golan Heights by insisting on the actual shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. Barak’s negotiating style did not succeed in modifying Syrian expectations any more than those of the Palestinians.

Actually, Barak’s main achievement may have been the decision to withdraw from Lebanon – but also in this respect, there has been some criticism of the way this was accomplished. For example, it is probable that the Palestinian perception of Israel, inexact as it may be, retreating in the face of Hizballah’s “armed struggle,” has hardened the PLO position with respect to Israel.

A “Calendaric” Straight-Jacket

No less puzzling was Barak’s habit of putting himself in a “calendaric” straight-jacket. One does sometimes try to impose such timetables on the other side, but why put constraints on oneself? He may have used these deadlines to demonstrate the seriousness of his commitment to peace, and therefore to obtain a “diplomatic line-of-credit” from the international community, in general, and the Arab world, in particular. But there was a price to pay for these deadlines. Not only did this undermine his position vis-a-vis both the Syrians and the Palestinians, but by not achieving any of these deadlines, Barak seems to have compromised his freedom of action in the negotiations – as well as creating some problems for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Ultimately, the international benefits from Barak’s diplomacy of deadlines were very limited. Only Mauritania established diplomatic relations with Israel, beyond what was achieved by 1996. Thus, Israel was not able to extend its limited ties in the Persian Gulf from Qatar and Oman to new states like Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. The same was true for Islamic states like Indonesia and Pakistan. Finally, with respect to Arab states with which Israel has full diplomatic relations – Egypt and Jordan – there was no movement towards improved normalization. Even King Abdullah was only willing to visit Israel by coming to Eilat, instead of to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem like his father.

How Much U.S. Involvement?

At the beginning of his term, Barak had stated, quite correctly, that he intended to curtail the U.S. role in the negotiations with the Palestinians – only to have the tables turned on him by Arafat as early as the Sharm el-Sheikh negotiations, which brought the U.S. peace team, including Secretary of State Albright, back into the negotiating room. The enhanced American involvement must not necessarily be seen as always being negative, but in the perception of the Palestinians, it is an instrument to put pressure on Israel. Recently, Barak himself has been seeking a Camp David-like summit with President Clinton and PLO Chairman Arafat in order to reach a “framework agreement” on the final status. Thus, Barak’s own position on the U.S. role has made a 180-degree turn.

Coalition Politics and National Priorities

Not only did Barak consider himself a political centrist, but he decided to try to set up as wide a coalition as possible. The direct election of the prime minister weakened the major parties (since voters could split their ticket), thereby requiring that a prime minister have keen political skills in coalition management. Barak was the first Labor prime minister who had to start his coalition formation with a Labor bloc of only 26 seats (only 23 of which were Labor party members). He realized that most of Israel’s public opinion was positioned in the political center. Furthermore, the center-right parties had actually garnered more votes in the 1999 Knesset elections than the center-left.

Yet it should have been clear to him that when one puts such divergent partners – ranging from the almost extreme right to the almost extreme left – in the same harness, it would be only a matter of time until his coalitionary vehicle started losing its wheels. It was not realistic to believe that the center-right part of his government, let alone the center-right majority in the country, would support policies that went beyond what even most Israeli “doves” had advocated in the past. What’s more, how could it be possible to reconcile the opposing views of his partners on almost everything else – from religion to the rule of law, from national pride to teaching vitriolic anti-Israel poetry to Israeli schoolchildren? Each of the forces in the Barak government has neutralized each other in important areas of domestic policy, so that much of the change that Barak hoped to bring about is impossible to implement.

The peace process is important, but it should not be the only criteria for designing Israeli coalitions. What is needed more than ever is a new Zionist and Jewish center that can meet the simultaneous challenges that Israel is facing and break the government stalemate that has set in. The Israeli government must make more serious efforts to close the widening socio-economic gap. The centerpiece of its policy, tax reform, is proving impossible to implement since, on the one hand, it does not adequately address the grievances of the weaker, salaried portions of the Israeli workforce, while, on the other hand, it penalizes those who have been the engine of Israel’s economic growth. Equally, the gap between the religious and secular sectors in Israel continues to expand. Rather than permitting Israel’s educational establishment to be under the control of a small, post-Zionist elite, Israeli schoolchildren need renewed faith in their state and people.

Why hasn’t Barak succeeded? Was it just a lack of leadership or a lack of experience – or perhaps an unrealistic appreciation of one’s own capabilities? Or maybe a combination of all of these? The often-cited fact that Barak was Israel’s most decorated soldier has proven irrelevant. After all, as is true in other countries as well, history has shown that even the best of generals do not always make the best of statesmen or leaders. Barak can still turn his premiership around, but he will need to assess his mistakes and reorder his own priorities to fit the pressing needs of the nation.

*     *     *


Zalman Shoval served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 1993 and from 1998 to 2000. He is Chairman of the Israel Chapter of the Board of Overseers of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. A veteran member of Israel’s Knesset (1970-1981, 1988-1990), Ambassador Shoval was a senior aide to the late Moshe Dayan during his tenure as foreign minister in the Begin government, including during the Camp David conference, and later he participated in the Madrid Peace Conference and served as a member of the Israeli team negotiating with the Jordanian and Palestinian delegations.