During Israel's election campaign, in May 1999, thousands of car stickers proclaimed: "Israel wants a change, with Ehud Barak." The new prime minister was elected because he promised that change in all aspects of Israeli life, both externally and internally. Barak promised to change Israel's priorities: to restart the peace process put on hold by Netanyahu, to invest in education and the creation of jobs, instead of pouring money into settlement expansion and in extending rabbinical schools. Put in power by a strong majority (56%), Barak has now to make good on his promises. Will he? Can he do it with a coalition government comprising both right and left, a pro settlement party such as the nationalist-religious Mafdal, and resolute pro peace advocates such as Meretz? Will he be able to reconcile the views of those who, like Shas, put rabbinical pronouncements above the Supreme Court's judgments, and of those who see in the rule of secular law the cornerstone of a free, democratic society?
Many observers doubt it. They believe that in preferring such a broad government coalition, Israel's new prime minister was concerned less with mustering a "solid Jewish majority" behind the new policies he promised to carry out, and more with preparing excuses for the possible slowing down of negotiations with Israel's neighbors and for watering down internal reforms.
Other observers are confident that Barak will surprise the doubters, especially regarding the peace process, whose relaunching is at the heart of his strategy and upon which the recovery of Israel's economy also depends in a great measure. Those observers insist that Barak is well aware that procrastination and delaying tactics, à la Netanyahu, won't work anymore. He knows that the U.S.A., Europe and the Arab world, mainly the Palestinians, expect him to move and fast.
Even Barak's critics agree that he has a first-class analytical mind and is able to map out a political strategy which takes into account the various aspects of a complex reality. Israel's new prime minister knows that a political vacuum cannot remain for long and that, in the absence of "peace dynamics," the situation will deteriorate and the region will start moving towards renewed Arab-Israeli hostilities.
Barak also knows that if he embarks upon serious peace negotiations, the U.S.A. will grant him the necessary assistance to enhance Israel's security and help overcome internal opposition to the inevitable territorial concessions. His experts say: the real equation is not merely "territories for peace," but territories for peace plus security, plus adequate compensation for settlers abandoning their homes in the occupied territories in order to make their reabsorption into Israel less controversial and painful.
Barak wants to be remembered by history as the leader who put an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict, as the man who finalized the peace with all of Israel's neighbors, especially with the Syrians and the Palestinians. Therefore, say the optimists, he will not hesitate to thwart internal opposition to his policies. Having promised a referendum on each of the peace treaties to be signed with Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians, Barak can afford to have his peace moves approved even by a small majority in the Knesset, a majority including the ten deputies representing Israel's Arab citizens.
When all is said and done, Ehud Barak will be judged not by his skill in putting together a coalition government, not by the subtleties of his political platform, nor by declarations of intent, but by the concrete policies he will pursue. First and foremost, he will be judged by his efforts to end the stalemate with the Palestinians and to replace the habits created by years of military occupation and of lording it over another people. Instead, Israel must foster a new relationship, based on mutual respect and trust. A new relationship means being able to work out a peace agreement, based not just on the balance of power, in other words, on the diktat of the stronger (as the balance of power may change in the future), but on the recognition of each other's national aspirations and minimum demands.
Only such a state of mind, which encompasses much more than mere "physical separation" between Israel and the future Palestinian state can put behind us the hundred-year-old struggle over a relatively small territory claimed by two peoples as their homeland, and enable them to hammer out a, no doubt, painful but indispensable historic compromise between their conflicting dreams and hopes. <