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If Barak builds peace, can he sell it?

As a Sept. 13 peace-deal deadline looms, Barak fights for political survival.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's recent political troubles underscore a lingering worry: How will he win parliamentary approval for any peace agreement he achieves with the Palestinians?

The short answer is: No one knows. But it seems that Mr. Barak and his advisers are taking a gamble that, if they build a peace, the voters will come to their side.

While many observers of Israeli politics praise Barak for his military record, his demonstrated desire to bring peace, and his success in withdrawing Israeli forces from Lebanon this year, they are also in creasingly worried about his political skills. "His ability to inspire - either in a retail or a wholesale way - is still unproven a year into office," says Jon Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the government-backed US Institute of Peace in Washington.

"He's clearly in very deep trouble," says Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. "The weakness of his government and governing ability has become apparent more quickly than anyone expected."

But Shlomo Ben Ami, Israel's acting foreign minister and a top negotiator, says he and other Barak supporters "will fight from house to house to explain our position" if the prime minister reaches a peace agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Barak has promised to put a peace deal to Israeli voters in a referendum, and he is betting that he can win sufficient public support to overpower his increasingly powerful opposition in the parliament, or Knesset. Based on historical precedent, that body will have to ratify the deal.


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