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Wednesday, 21 February, 2001, 14:37 GMT
Beginning of end for Barak?
Defeated Prime Minister Ehud Barak
Mr Barak has disappointed many Israelis
By BBC News Online's Richard Allen Greene

The announcement by the outgoing Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, that he will not serve in a new government of national unity led by Ariel Sharon could mark the end of his short political career.

It is an ignominious moment for the country's most decorated soldier, who swept into the Prime Minister's office in 1999 with the biggest margin of victory ever recorded in an Israeli election.

Two weeks ago he was swept back out again, losing by a margin that topped the record he set in 1999.

It must have been a bitter blow for Mr Barak, a protege of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Peacemaker's protege

He entered politics as Mr Rabin's interior minister in the summer of 1995, and when his mentor was assassinated later that year, became foreign minister in a government reshuffle.

Slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
Mr Rabin was Barak's mentor
His Labour party lost power in 1996, giving Mr Barak a chance to challenge successfully for the leadership.

With the vocal support of Mr Rabin's widow Leah, Mr Barak came to power in May 1999 by portraying himself as the heir to the late prime minister, who had gained iconic status as a martyr to peace.

He promised to withdraw Israeli forces from their increasingly unpopular occupation of southern Lebanon, and looked like just the right man to lead Israel in its negotiations with the Palestinians and Syrians.

He managed to persuade the Israelis that he was strong enough to bring that elusive combination that the country desperately wants - peace and security.

Broad government

He built a broad coalition that included everyone from secular pro-peace parties to religious hawks.

Leah Rabin, late widow of Yithak Rabin
Leah Rabin supported Mr Barak
He swiftly withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon, but that proved to be his only policy success.

He found the competing demands of coalition partners impossible to balance, and he was accused of being indecisive and arrogant.

The Israeli public was stunned when he violated one of the nation's most strongly held principles by offering to share sovereignty over Jerusalem with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

The position of his minority government became ever more precarious.

Members of his own party were annoyed by what they saw as his dictatorial style and felt he had left them out of the decision-making process.

No deal

And Mr Arafat refused to accept a deal that Israeli doves and hawks alike said was by far the most generous offer a prime minister had ever made.

Ehud Barak with former President Bill Clinton and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
Mr Clinton could not bring the two sides together
The beginning of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, at the end of September 2000 convinced the Israeli public that Mr Barak had delivered neither peace nor security, and national support for him evaporated.

With the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in more or less open revolt at the failed peacemaking effort, he gambled on calling an early prime ministerial election.

Polls at the time suggested that he could beat the Likud party leader, Mr Sharon, but by the time the election came on 6 February, it was clear that he had no chance of winning.

Arab voters and dovish Israelis stayed away from the polls, unwilling to support Mr Barak, and moderates and the country's huge Russian minority swung to Likud.

More reversals

After losing the election, Mr Barak said he would be leaving politics but later changed his mind and said he would be ready to join Mr Sharon's proposed government of national unity.

Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon offered Mr Barak the defence ministry
Labour party members were furious at the reversal and threatened to split the party rather than supporting a Sharon-Barak alliance.

So Mr Barak reversed himself again, vowing to resign from party leadership and politics.

The move could mean the end of his political career.

But it is never wise to say "never" when dealing with Israeli politics.

Mr Rabin himself made a comeback after a disastrous prime ministership in the 1970s, and Binyamin Netanyahu has regained popularity after a scandal-plagued administration in the 1990s.

Mr Barak looks to be gone for now, but given Israeli politics, there is little reason to believe he is gone forever.

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See also:

20 Feb 01 | Middle East
Likud sets coalition deadline
16 Feb 01 | Middle East
Israel moves towards unity deal
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