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Alon Ben-Meir Headshot

Time for Barak to Depart

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The Israeli government must still approve the proposed United States-Israeli agreement to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank in exchange for a U.S. offer of three billion worth of military hardware, including stealth fighter jets. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeds in obtaining cabinet approval, the parties will have 90 days to focus primarily on reaching an agreement on borders. Only an agreement on borders would enable negotiations to proceed by delineating which of the settlements will be incorporated into Israel proper, and which would not. The resumption of Israeli construction would then be limited to those areas that are considered part of Israel proper. The success or failure of the Obama administration's peacemaking effort hinges on whether or not sufficient progress is made to induce the Palestinian and Israeli leadership to continue with the negotiations beyond the 90-day freeze.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that such an accord will be reached is slim. Any agreement would require major concessions on the part of both sides. However, it is unclear whether the current Israeli government can muster a three-month settlement freeze, albeit in exchange for a compelling American offer, and then agree on a border that relinquishes 95 percent or more of the West Bank. Shas and Israel Beiteinu in particular will object, as will right-wing rebels within the Likud party who are appealing to Shas to oppose rather than abstain from the cabinet vote on the freeze. Shas has stated that it will only abstain if it obtains a letter from the United States ensuring that construction can resume in Jerusalem, and that the freeze would not be renewed on the 91st day. With such coalition partners, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be optimistic about the prospects for genuine movement toward peace at this stage.

Should skeptics, myself included, sadly prove to be correct and efforts to negotiate a border agreement fail, it is clear that the Labor Party led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak must leave the government in an effort to induce a reconfiguration of the Israeli political landscape. Barak has long since lost his luster. He may think of himself as Israel's savior, but he is not. As long as Barak remains in this government, he serves as a fig-leaf for a dead-end, right-wing coalition that ideologically opposes making the kind of far-reaching compromises necessary to reach a peace agreement. Of course, Barak has stated that his presence in the government has kept the peace process alive despite the coalition's right-wing majority. A failure to reach a border agreement would expose this fallacy. In fact, Barak has become a liability to the peace process.

A poll two weeks ago by Yedioth Ahronoth indicated that if elections were held today with Barak leading the Labor party, the party would lose eight seats, from the current 13 to a paltry and irrelevant 5. However, if Avishay Braverman led the party, it would receive 14 seats, with Isaac Herzog, 17, and if Gabi Ashkenazi entered politics to lead Labor, it could obtain as many as 23 seats. In a letter from Barak to the Labor Party Steering Committee responding to the surge in calls for him to leave the government and emergence of challengers to his party leadership, he wrote "It would be a tragic mistake to abandon the campaign for peace at this time and to lead Israel into a state of international isolation." However, his continued presence in a government that is decidedly uncommitted to the only viable option of a two-state solution has and will continue to further that isolation, rather than curb it. If he leaves, Netanyahu would be left with a weak right-wing coalition with little military experience and even weaker diplomatic relations with the Americans. In this sense, Barak's exit could be critical to ameliorating the political landscape and to eventually forming a government capable of delivering a peace agreement.

The only way to reverse the trend of isolation and to place the peace process on track toward a two-state solution would be to revamp the current governing coalition. This would require a strengthened core of moderate, capable leadership found in elements of the Likud, Kadima and Labor. Such new leadership in Israel could achieve a number of things that the current government is either not able or willing to undertake.

First, a new government could restore the United States' confidence in its relationship with Israel. The bad chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu may not be reparable -- especially following Netanyahu's highly publicized meeting with the new Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, after which Cantor noted he would serve as a "check" against the administration. However, beyond Netanyahu's own behavior, his partners' efforts to oppose the president and his initiatives, let alone promote settlement projects, have significantly damaged confidence between Washington and Jerusalem. The restoration of mutual confidence between the two would provide a new government in Israel with necessary crutch to make concessions for a peace agreement. New leadership in Israel would also strengthen coordination with the United States on a range of critical issues, including Lebanon, Iran and Hamas.

Second, a new Israeli government would restore some of the trust between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and the leading Arab states. Very few Arab leaders believe that the Netanyahu government is capable or willing to make required concessions for a two-state solution. This basic distrust cannot be mitigated without a new government in Israel that is not wed to the settlement movement. Without a marked change in the makeup of the government, it is less likely that states like Saudi Arabia would even consider taking steps to normalize relations with Israel. But a change in Israel could spur a change in Arab attitudes as well.

Third, a new government in Israel would give the international campaign to isolate Israel some respite while relations, especially with the E.U. member states and Turkey, could dramatically improve. Shas' chokehold on progress in the current coalition exemplifies Israel's dilemma. As presently constituted, a limited settlement freeze cannot be pursued unless Shas abstains. The same Shas is led by its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose regular outlandish remarks reached a new low-point recently when he stated in a sermon that non-Jews "were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world-only to serve the People of Israel." Removing the significant influence that this extreme figure now wields would only help Israel's international relations.

Fourth, a new government could put the Palestinians -- and the Arab states that support them -- to the test by changing the growing international perception that Israel is the obstacle to peace. Who can blame those who say Israel does not want peace? In fact, just last week Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters that he does not think Israel should pursue peace with Syria and he remains staunchly opposed to even a very brief settlement freeze in order to improve the prospects for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks. That Israel may only be able to pass this freeze with significant U.S. incentives -- and even then it would pass by the slimmest of margins -- further underscores the perception that Israel is not interested in genuine peacemaking. A new government capable of presenting its vision for a two-state solution and acting to achieve it, would force the Palestinians and Arab states back on their heels, demanding that they respond or be held responsible for placing obstacles to peace.

Finally, a revamped coalition could begin to prepare the Israeli public for the eventuality of a two-state solution. The public must be disabused of the notion of the tie between Israel's national security and its occupation of Palestinian land. The current government has reinforced this notion at great cost to the prospects of a lasting and viable two-state solution. What is needed are honest and experienced leaders who can provide Israel with leadership in both the diplomatic and security realms, while laying the groundwork for a peace agreement that would ensure, not detract from Israel's national security.

The choice to change the current government ultimately lies with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The catalyst for change, however, should be Ehud Barak. He must recognize that by resigning from the government -- and his leadership of the Labor party -- he could set in motion a political realignment that could create a path toward the peace agreement that he purports to seek for Israel. To do so, he must be the first to place Israel's interest above his personal ego and political ambition, and in turn force Netanyahu to follow his lead.

A version of this article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post on November 26th, and can be accessed here.