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Thursday, 27 January, 2000, 15:15 GMT
The whiff of scandal
Israelis may have second thoughts about Mr Barak
By Middle East Analyst Gerald Butt

For the Israeli public, the election of the Labour leader Ehud Barak to the post of prime minister was supposed to usher in a new style of quiet, sober leadership.

Gone was the flamboyant Likud prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with his slick media performances, his almost presidential style of leadership and the stain of corruption allegations surrounding him.
Israel Elections Special Report

Just as the United States public craved the quiet sincerity of President Carter after the high jinx and scandals of the Nixon era, so the Israelis were looking forward to a period of calm to enable them to restore their faith in their elected leaders, with a quiet, mild-mannered military hero at the helm.

All of a sudden, the picture changed, first with allegations of financial irregularities directed at, of all people, President Ezer Weizman, until recently the most admired and trusted public figure in Israel.

Now, Mr Barak's party has been fined for breaking election laws relating to campaign funding.

Public cynicism

Most Israelis will not wait to see whether the president and the prime minister can fight successfully to clear their names.

Instead, recent developments will increase their cynical belief that Israeli politicians as a whole, Labour as much as Likud, are not to be trusted.
Middle East

For Mr Barak, the police investigation into the findings of the state comptroller's report into his party's financing is likely to adversely affect his main policy aim: to make peace with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese.

For a start, much of his attention is bound to be deflected towards limiting the political damage caused by the whole affair among the Israeli electorate.

Mr Barak desperately needs public endorsement of whatever deal he eventually concludes with his Arab neighbours.

Public opinion was already divided. A prime minister whose party is under police investigation is likely to find it hard to convince doubters to sign up to his side. At times of internal political crises, Israelis tend to feel vulnerable.

Bad news for Arabs

At such moments, they are less likely than at any other to endorse the idea of handing back the Golan Heights to Syria.

Yasser Arafat feels Mr Barak has neglected the Palestinians

For the Arabs involved in the peace process, too, the latest developments will be unwelcome. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat Yasser Arafat has already been complaining that Mr Barak has spent too much time on peace talks with Syria, at the expense of those with the Palestinians.

Now suddenly the Israeli prime minister has other pressing matters to attend to. The Syrian leadership, for their part, will also be concerned.

They have always said that Mr Barak is the kind of man with whom they could do business. But they may be less keen to pursue talks until they see the outcome of the police investigation in Israel.

So at best, one might should expect a further delay in the Middle East process.

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27 Jan 00 | Middle East
Barak fined over election funding
27 Jan 00 | Israel elections
Profile: A trusted leader
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