Pollard and Azzam Azzam, Poker Chips for Clinton

Post Election Commentary by Shimon Shiffer

YEDIOT AHRONOT (p. A7) - May 18, 1999

In June 1996, Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Bill Clinton faced journalists at the White House after their first meeting. Clinton was asked how he felt standing beside the man whose victory he had not wanted. Clinton flashed an embarrassed grin and said that such is life.

The Administration was wrong this time, too. The Americans' preferred candidate, Yitzhak Mordechai, will not stand alongside Clinton next month. It will be Ehud Barak. For Clinton, this will be a partial comfort. As long as it is not Netanyahu.

The United States, Europe and the Arab world have great expectations of Barak, and they are counting on tremendous momentum in the peace process -- but the disappointment could be as great as the expectations. Barak does not represent Peace Now. He does not intend to form a narrow left-wing government. Nor is he enamored of the Oslo Accords. As chief-of-staff, he leveled harsh criticism at the "holes" in the security agreements. As a freshman Knesset member, he abstained in the vote on Oslo II, which was signed in Cairo in 1995.

Barak plans to implement the Wye Memorandum which Netanyahu froze, but only after a White House summit. Who will come to a summit? Certainly Arafat, probably King Abdullah of Jordan and maybe Egyptian President Mubarak. The summit will aim to re-ignite the peace process, and will address all those issues which consumed Israeli public opinion until election fever took hold -- continuation of the withdrawal, safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, the Gaza port.

The Americans plan to work on an agreement that will be submitted to Barak: Israel will release Palestinian prisoners "with blood on their hands" and, in return, Jewish American spy Jonathan Pollard will be released -- and Egypt will release Azzam Azzam, the Israeli convicted on charges of espionage.

In terms of the schedule, Barak has very little room to maneuver. If he does not produce political results within six months of taking office, he will have a problem because the United States will already be engaged in the 2000 presidential election campaign, with primary season beginning early next year. Democrats and Republicans all contract domestic political fever, and nobody will deal with the problems of the Middle East. Clinton himself will be fully employed working for Al Gore's election so it will be hard to count on his intensive involvement after January 2000. And the clock is also ticking for the Palestinians, who have also postponed the creation of their state until the start of 2000.

Barak is also trapped from another direction -- his promise to take the IDF out of Lebanon "by June 2000." In order to do so, he will have to resume the dialoguewith Syria; this will be none too simple. The Syrians insist upon starting negotiations from the point at which they were paramount to an Israeli commitment to withdraw from the entire Golan. In Israel's view, there was no more than a working assumption that would allow for a discussion of security arrangements and the nature of a peace treaty.

Barak expects that, in return for renewing the talks, Assad will make a gesture toward Israel and bring calm to the war in Lebanon. Assad has not consented to this in the past, explaining that Hizballah is an organization fighting to liberate Lebanon, and not a band of murderers.

Likud propaganda portrayed Barak as a Beilin-Peres clone. This is not entirely accurate. Barak mocks the idea of the Peres "New Middle East." He intends to follow in the footsteps of Yitzhak Rabin -- slowly and cautiously.