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Israel: Barak's Last Ditch Bid To Save The Peace Process

International Outlook

Israel: Barak's Last-Ditch Bid to Save the Peace Process

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Dec. 9 decision to resign and call a special election in February has thrown the chaotic Israeli political scene and dying Middle East peace process into even more turmoil. In Israel, the Labor leader's gambit is largely viewed as a cynical ploy to keep his most dangerous rival, former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, from running against him. Netanyahu left politics last year, and Israeli law says that only current members of parliament can run in a special election for Prime Minister.

Barak's friends, however, portray his move as a last-ditch effort to press the Palestinians into a deal before President Bill Clinton leaves office on Jan. 20. "The idea was to give an ultimatum to Yasser Arafat," says Nimrod Novik, an Israeli businessman and former prime ministerial adviser who is close to Barak. The message: "If you want to deal with Netanyahu or Ariel Sharon, then keep up the violence."LEAP OF FAITH. Israeli officials and intermediaries are shuttling back and forth to Arafat and his key aides to try to find a basis for new talks. But reviving negotiations after 10 weeks of violence will be next to impossible. Barak will be under pressure not to make concessions that would reward Arafat for the fighting. And it is hard to see how Arafat can agree to new compromises after the violence has left 320 people dead, mostly Palestinians. "The Palestinian public expects gains equal to what they have sacrificed. That plays heavily on [Arafat's] mind," says Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy & Survey Research, a Ramallah pollster. The only hope, he says, is that one or both of the leaders will make a leap of faith, reckoning that failure to reach agreement before Clinton leaves will doom their people to even more violence. Certainly, there's little optimism about peace under a Netanyahu government. Talks with the Arabs went into deep freeze in his 1996-99 administration.

Netanyahu is scrambling to find a way to run for the premiership. Public opinion, which favors Netanyahu over Barak by 46% to 27%, may well work in the former leader's favor. Netanyahu stands a good chance of winning leadership of the Likud when he takes on the current leader, former Defense Minister Sharon, in a primary on Dec. 19. Sharon leads Barak by just two percentage points. Netanyahu is also lobbying Knesset members, including old foes, in advance of an expected Dec. 20 vote on two laws that would clear the way for him to challenge Barak.

If Netanyahu gets to run and goes on to win, he will have made a remarkable comeback. But he will then have to face what is likely to be a worsening situation with the Palestinians. The peace process and the institutions it has spawned, such as the Palestinian Authority, have lost credibility in the eyes of Palestinians. There is a danger of government breaking down and competing militia leaders filling the vacuum, making future peace talks all the more difficult.

If violence continues to mount in Israel, how might Netanyahu deal with it? He would likely take an even tougher line than Barak toward the Palestinians, striking back hard against terrorist attacks. Some fear the conflagration could spread to other countries, such as Syria. "The biggest issue is the potential for a large-scale war," says Eliot A. Cohen, an Israel expert at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. So far, the region has escaped that catastrophe, but a major setback may be around the corner.By Stanley Reed in London, with Neal Sandler in Jerusalem and Stan Crock in Washington; Edited by Rose BradyReturn to top

Chasing Thai Vote Corruption

Election officials in Thailand are already investigating hundreds of complaints of vote buying in parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 6. That's in keeping with the country's 1997 constitution, which was aimed at cleaning up the country's notoriously dirty politics.

The irony is that the favorite in the election, telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, 52, is himself in danger of being indicted. The National Counter Corruption Commission is probing him for concealing his holdings in 17 companies worth $14.9 million in declarations made during a brief stint as deputy prime minister in 1997. Thaksin denies any wrongdoing.

He will probably get a chance to sit in the prime minister's chair in any case. His Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, which he founded two years ago, is leading Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai's Democrats in public opinion polls by a 20-point margin. That's largely because voters are responding favorably to Thaksin's pledge to boost spending to pump up the economy, which is growing at only 4.5% compared with double-digit growth before the 1997 collapse. And Thais are tired of Chuan's focus on fiscal austerity and bank restructuring--requirements of the International Monetary Fund.

Officials say that Thaksin, who made his fortune in mobile phones, is unlikely to be indicted before the elections. But if he is later convicted, he would be barred from holding public office for five years. Thaksin vows to stay involved in his party, even if in the end it's from the sidelines.By Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong; Edited by Rose BradyReturn to top

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