Washington — Ehud Barak, the general-turned-politician who hopes to lead Israel’s Labor Party out of the wilderness, tried out some of the themes that will drive his campaign for the post of prime minister this week during his first high-profile visit to the capital.
The battered peace process and Barak’s view that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is damaging Israel’s security by allowing it to languish were at the top of his agenda.
The Labor leader and his delegation also struck the theme of Jewish fragmentation and the “cultural wars” pitting Orthodox vs. secular Israelis that they say threaten to undermine Israel from within.
But Barak’s belated effort to establish a strong Washington presence was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Knesset member Ori Orr, who was supposed to accompany him.
Barak dismissed Orr, a close friend and associate, from his party posts after Orr made disparaging comments about Sephardic Jews.Orr said he was especially disappointed in Sephardi politicians, and most disappointed of all in Israelis of Moroccan background.
“High-caliber individuals have not emerged from them,” he said of the Moroccans. He also said they are “the largest of the Sephardi ethnic groups and the most problematic.”
Meanwhile, Barak managed to arrive just as Congress was fleeing for its August recess, and as the nation’s attention was riveted on the latest tawdry developments in the Monica Lewinsky saga.
“Normally, there would be significant interest in what he has to say,” said a Jewish House staffer. “But this week, recess and Monica are the only issues anybody’s paying attention to. His timing left a lot to be desired.”
In part, the trip was a carefully orchestrated response to criticism at home.
“There’s not a lot of subtlety to this,” said Mark Rosenblum, political director of Americans for Peace Now. “Barak has been under intensive criticism for going from ‘Mr. Security’ to ‘Mr. Invisible.’ Centrist doves in this country had enormous hopes that Barak, with his security credentials, would be the remaking of [former Prime Minister Yitzchak] Rabin. People have been disappointed that he had become invisible.”
This week’s visit, which included meetings with congressional leaders, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and members of the State Department peace process team, as well as a number of sessions with reporters and editorial boards, was a carefully orchestrated response to that criticism.
Barak was accompanied by three Knesset members: Shlomo Ben-Ami, Yossi Beilin and Ephraim Sneh, all occasional adversaries in internal Labor Party politics.That combination, observers here say, was risky for the party leader — but it also allowed the Labor delegation to sharpen its attack on adversaries ranging from Netanyahu to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, while allowing Barak to maintain that he was not trying to undercut the current government in Jerusalem.Striking a theme that observers say will dominate his campaign to unseat Netanyahu, Barak tried to portray himself as a security-minded dove in the mold of Rabin.
“The only way to achieve security is through peace,” he said in what sounded like a campaign mantra. “This is somewhat different from what our current government suggests. They suggest that unless the Arabs transform themselves into democratic societies, and unless they are able to provide a perfect, almost utopian security, they are not right for our peace.”
He argued that the Netanyahu government, by focusing almost exclusively on the narrow details of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, is not paying sufficient attention to other regional developments that endanger Israel’s future.
They include Islamic extremism and the growing number of nations seeking chemical and nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
He also charged that Netanyahu’s approach to the peace talks is jeopardizing the critical alliance with the United States. All those factors, he said, are part of the Mideast “gestalt.”
Israel’s security, he argued, is harmed “by being too obstinate in regard to one aspect,” an obvious dig at Netanyahu.Barak and his colleagues pressed the Clinton administration not to abandon the peace process because of frustration with the Netanyahu government.
The alternative to proceeding with an imperfect peace process, Barak said, “is deteriorating into a kind of apartheid situation at best, or a Belfast or Bosnia situation at the worst. Most probably, the latter.“It’s a pity we have spent two precious years without accomplishing anything. We are more isolated, there is no trust, there is damage to the relationship with the United States and we have strengthened extremists in the Arab world,” he said. “And the prospect of violence is waiting for us down the street.”
Beilin put it in even more apocalyptic terms.
“The real message to the administration is this: if nothing happens by May 4, 1999, and if unilateral decisions are taken by the Palestinians, followed by Israeli annexation of the West Bank, we are approaching violence, and not just between Israelis and Palestinians. We know the date; if America is not there as part of the process — if the American policy is ‘let them bleed’ — it will be the end of the world.”
The Labor delegation also emphasized the growing political and religious conflicts that threaten the fabric of Israeli society.“People here talk about the technicalities of the peace process, but they do not see the deeper problem — that this is a society in an advanced state of fragmentation,” said Ben-Ami, a Knesset member and top Sephardic leader.
“The leadership of Netanyahu is a leadership that manipulates differences among the Israel people instead of healing them.”
Another underlying theme of the visit — that mainstream American Jewish groups have done too little to support the faltering peace process or to encourage the administration to remain actively involved — predictably produced an explosive encounter with AIPAC staff.
At a Monday morning meeting, Barak’s Labor colleagues tore into the pro-Israel lobby, which they accused of reflecting a strong bias for Likud.
“I didn’t want to waste the meeting on niceties,” said Beilin, a persistent AIPAC critic. “I thanked them for helping us in the past, I acknowledged that they are dedicated to the right causes. But what is happening now is that AIPAC is becoming an extreme right-wing organization. Directly or indirectly, they are harming the security interests of Israel.”
The Labor leaders blasted AIPAC for efforts to limit administration flexibility in its mediation role, including the AIPAC-organized letter in April, signed by 81 senators, sternly warning the White House not to pressure Israel.
“The message I wanted AIPAC to hear is that if you don’t want the Americans to be involved, there will be no peace process,” Beilin said. “And without a peace process, there will be no security for Israel.”AIPAC officials countered that they were simply supporting the duly elected government of Israel, as they have done in the past regardless of who was in power.
A spokesperson for the organization said it was an “excellent, productive meeting.”“Barak laid out his vision of peace in a comprehensive way,” the spokesperson said, “and we laid out the situation on Capitol Hill. We were pleased that the delegation chose to spend in excess of two hours with us.”
Beilin’s attacks angered some mainstream Jewish leaders.“I think he crossed the line,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “While I disagree with some of AIPAC’s strategies and policies, Beilin is playing politics when he characterizes them as extreme right wing. That’s inappropriate.”
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