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Israel Readies for Rough Election Season

Monday, August 27, 2001 | Tag Cloud Tags:

Caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and challenger Likud leader Ariel Sharon are beginning to gear up for the special election for the premiership on February 6, a race that promises to be impassioned and gritty.

The Barak campaign team - which features Labor doves Shimon Peres and Shlomo Ben-Ami, along with Meretz head Yossi Sarid - is shifting its focus away from achieving a peace accord with the Palestinians by election day, and over to blaming PLO chief Yasser Arafat for the stalemate in the peace process and emphasizing the unsuitability of Sharon for office.

Barak kicked off his campaign this week, but the mood at the event was gloomy due to Arafat's foot-dragging in the US-led negotiations. Operating under the slogan "Don't concede the future," several speakers spoke on Barak's behalf, including some who had sharply criticized him in recent days for mishandling his job as head of the government.

Barak seems to have given up hope of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians in time for the election, which he wanted to serve as a referendum on his peace policies. Instead, he attacked Sharon and Arafat, and asked for more time to advance peace talks as well as the social agenda he unveiled and then abandoned on several occasions during his 18-month tenure.

"The right has no alternative program in matters of security or diplomacy," Barak said. "We need to remember who was behind the mistakes in Lebanon, who formed the settlements that will be so difficult to uproot later on," and who inflamed religious tension with his visit to the Temple Mount in late September.

Barak's negative reference to Sharon's ascent to the Temple Mount is interesting, since he initially approved the visit and later defended Sharon when world leaders tried to pin blame for the renewed Palestinian intifada on the Likud chairman.

The Labor party is especially anxious to tar Sharon for his role in conducting the Lebanon War in the 1980s. Sarid warned that a Sharon victory would bring about an earthquake. Earlier in the day, he had also criticized Barak for his recent statements about giving up on reaching an accord.

Sharon, meanwhile, is trying to assure the nationalist camp on his "red lines" in peace talks, especially on the settlements issue, while at the same time reaching out to centrist voters with a message of national unity and peace with security. Sharon is up 20% in the polls, and is engaging in a delicate balancing act to maintain that wide margin.

In an early test, some on the Right were upset when Sharon's office recently sent a routine holiday greeting to Arafat. He rushed to assure them he still would not shake the PLO leader's hand until an "end of the conflict" agreement was signed.

On Wednesday, Sharon visited the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea areas, and warned, "the Jordan Valley must never be given away under any final-status agreement." His warm welcome from local Labor-affiliated leaders, many of whom supported Barak in the last elections, was an indication of just how much the Israeli public is ready to embrace a Sharon government. Jordan Valley leaders recalled Barak made similar statements in a visit during the 1999 campaign, but then essentially conceded the strategic valley to the Palestinians in peace talks.

After an impressive victory over Binyamin Netanyahu in May, 1999, expectations were high for Barak, with many giving him the benefit of the doubt since he was so new to politics. But his support has slowly eroded due to broken campaign pledges and a campaign funding scandal. And in recent months, Israeli public opinion has been driven to the right - towards Sharon - by the Palestinian uprising and Barak's diplomatic dance of restrained reaction to the violence and terrorism in order to keep alive efforts to reach a hasty peace deal before US President Bill Clinton leaves office.

In order to further draw centrist voters, Sharon has been making references to his "multi-stage plan" for restarting negotiations, which he presented to the Palestinians when he served as foreign minister in 1999. Sharon describes the plan as "a long-term interim agreement based on the establishment of a non-belligerency accord without a set of specific deadlines and timetables, but with a mutually agreed-upon set of expectations," which would allow Israel to "work in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority toward the establishment of a Palestinian entity."

According to the JERUSALEM POST, the plan would ensure that Jewish communities in Judea/Samaria and Gaza would not be uprooted and the IDF would maintain secure and open routes to all settlements. The status quo would be maintained - in Jerusalem with full Israeli sovereignty, and with regard to Palestinian refugees, who would continue to be dealt with in the context of family reunification and other humanitarian considerations.

Israel would maintain full control of its eastern and western security zones, the routes connecting the Jordan Valley with the coastal plan, and its most vital underground water aquifers. Israel would negotiate with the PA the provision of contiguity and free, uninterrupted access from one area of Palestinian control to another. Terrorism and the terrorist infrastructure within the PA and abroad would be combatted in a combined effort by Israel and the PA.

Finally, the Sharon plan places special emphasis on the development of joint projects that create mutual interdependence, such as large-scale seawater desalination plants. Joint projects would aim to stop incitement in books and media and foster educational programs geared to teaching peace to both sides, starting with school-age children.

In recent days, Sharon has received the endorsements of the YESHA settlers' council, Gesher head David Levy and, in a big surprise, resigned President Ezer Weizman. Weizman said yesterday he recalled Barak was a talented young man when he knew him in the IDF, but that "a fuse must have blown somewhere along the line."

Despite stiff opposition from the Right, Sharon is sticking to his promise to try to establish a national unity government if elected, in order to "face security problems and pressures that will come upon the country as the result of the failed management of the negotiations." Besides considering a Druse or Arab as a cabinet minister, Sharon also has suggested appointing Barak as defense minister and even Peres as foreign minister. But after this campaign is over, there may be too many bruises to expect Sharon to keep such a commitment.

Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.

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Worthy Christian News » World News » Israel Readies for Rough Election Season