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In Mideast, patience wears thin

One year after his landslide victory, Ehud Barak's peace plans are unraveling and his approval rates are dropping.

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It was only one year ago today that Ehud Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier, was overwhelmingly elected to lead Israel to peace with its Arab neighbors.

But he so far has been unable to live up to the towering expectations he raised. Little has gone right with his foreign agenda. And domestically, surveys show his approval rating has fallen to below 40 percent. One poll even shows him only one point ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing incumbent he trounced last year.

Over the past two days, Israelis and Palestinians fought their first gun-battles in nearly four years; Barak's coalition partners threatened to abandon him over his plans to turn over three villages outside Jerusalem to Palestinians; and the chief Palestinian negotiator for final peace talks quit. The peace deal with Syria also seems unattainable.

"I think these clashes are a danger, and this coalition crisis is a very serious problem for Barak," says Barry Rubin, at the Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. "If it's this hard to get people to accept the transfer of a couple of villages, how hard will it be at a later stage when substantial concessions are necessary?"

Barak was elected on a platform that championed a revival of the peace tracks that had stalled under Mr. Netanyahu. He promised that a clear peace with Israel's neighbors - primarily the Palestinians, Syria, and Lebanon - would help jump-start Israel's sluggish economy.

One of the complications, experts here say, is that Barak prefers things be done incognito, with as little media exposure as possible, and is described by those who have worked closely with him as a man who believes that if only everyone would step aside and let him get down to business, he'll engineer swift, smart peace deals with the Arab world. .

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