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Friday, 4 August, 2000, 20:31 GMT 21:31 UK
Barak's uphill struggle
Barak, Cilnton and Arafat
The Camp David talks failed to reach a solution
By Middle East analyst Roger Hardy

Frustrated in his desire for peace with the Palestinians and bruised by a barrage of domestic criticism, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has 90 days in which to try to reverse his political fortunes.

Anti-Barak demonstration
The Israeli PM is facing severe criticism at home
In the last few days before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, broke up for its summer recess, Mr Barak suffered a succession of body blows.

He barely survived a vote of no confidence.

His preferred candidate for the presidency, Shimon Peres, was humiliated by a little-known rival, Moshe Katsav, from the opposition Likud Party.

Moshe Katsav
The surprise election of Moshe Katsav was a blow for Mr Barak
His foreign minister, David Levy, resigned.

And the Knesset took the first step towards dissolving itself and calling fresh elections.

Mr Barak has vowed to use the three-month recess to rebuild his government and continue his efforts to secure a peace deal with the Palestinians.

But he faces an uphill task on both fronts.

Coalition hopes

Any fresh coalition looks likely to suffer from the same weakness and instability as the last one, which was hobbled by perpetual squabbling between hawks and doves and between the orthodox and the secular.

Orthodox Jew
With Shas gone from the coalition, Mr Barak is losing the backing of Orthodox Jews
To Mr Barak's embarrassment, three parties pulled out of his governing coalition on the eve of his departure for the Camp David summit last month.

The three - two religious parties and a party representing Russian immigrants - said he had no mandate to make concessions to the Palestinians.

Mr Barak cannot afford to alienate such important constituencies.

Russian immigrants - who make up 16% of the country's population - played an important part in getting him elected last year.

Significant bloc

And of the two religious parties which defected from the coalition, Shas, which represents Jews who came to Israel from other parts of the Middle East, has become a force to be reckoned with in Israeli politics.

Jerusalem remains the key sticking point
It commands a significant bloc of 17 seats in the Knesset.

It was Shas which seems to have swung the Knesset vote in favour of Moshe Katsav, the country's new president.

Even if Mr Barak can woo Shas back into the governing coalition, he has already discovered he can't rely on the party to support him in the peace process.

Nevertheless he seems to favour patching up his old coalition rather than creating a new one based on an alliance with the right-wing Likud Party.

Likud vehemently opposes the concessions Mr Barak made at Camp David.

So the creation of a "government of national unity" embracing Likud would effectively signal that Mr Barak had given up hope of a breakthrough in the peace process.

He therefore sees such a move as an option of last resort.

September deadline

Ehud Barak's gamble seems to be that, even with a weak government, he can survive until the Knesset resumes its work at the end of October.

Palestinians with posters of Arafat
Mr Arafat wants to declare independence in September
That gives him time to try to achieve the goal which eluded him during 15 days and nights of exhausting negotiations with the Palestinians at Camp David.

A deadline hangs over the heads of the two sides - 13 September, the date when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat says he will proclaim the birth of a Palestinian state, with or without an agreement with the Israelis.

The deadline is concentrating minds, but even so it provides no guarantee of a successful outcome.

The key question now is what sort of peace it is realistic to aim for - the comprehensive deal the two sides sought at Camp David, or a less ambitious and less glamorous partial agreement.

The Camp David negotiations were based on an all-or-nothing approach.

Mr Barak in particular was against producing yet another partial deal - even when President Bill Clinton suggested that would be better than failure.

End of conflict

Mr Barak wants to bring before the Israeli people an agreement which would signal the end, once and for all, of the historic conflict with the Palestinians.

He calculates that only in return for such a significant and long-sought prize would they endorse significant concessions to Mr Arafat.

But Mr Arafat knows that ending the struggle is the last card in his hands - and so won't give it up unless there's a resolution of the two most intractable issues, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of more than three million Palestinian refugees.

Enormous pressure

It was on these two rocks, but above all on Jerusalem, that Camp David foundered.

Ehud Barak
Mr Barak faces a summer of tough thinking
There will be enormous pressure on the two sides to produce an agreement before 13 September.

If Mr Barak insists on a comprehensive deal, including Jerusalem and the refugees, then there is the risk that Mr Arafat would once again say no - since it is hard to see Mr Barak offering more on these two highly-charged issues than he was ready to offer at Camp David.

If, on the other hand, Mr Barak accepts the more modest goal of a partial agreement, he must fear that this would put him in a poor position to win the Israeli elections which many believe are now only months away.

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