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Israel elections Thursday, 15 July, 1999, 16:17 GMT 17:17 UK
Analysis: New chance for peace?
By Gerald Butt

Israel Elections Special Report
The victory of Ehud Barak will put the Middle East peace process back on the international agenda. But peace itself is likely to remain a distant prospect.

That is largely due to the fact that Ehud Barak's idea of peace is not that different than Mr Netanyahu's. His power is more in his style than his substance.

During Binyamin Netanyahu's years in office, he declared his commitment to the ideals of peace but insisted that it should be a by-product of security.

Middle East
In his view, security could only be guaranteed by the consolidation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the elimination of militant Islamic groups within the Palestinian community. Above all, a Palestinian state was out of the question, and the status of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel was not open to negotiations.

The crowds came out to welcome their new leader into power
The crowds came out to welcome their new leader into power
The Likud leader made no secret of his unwillingness to make territorial concessions either to the Palestinians or to Syria. He found one pretext after another to avoid entering negotiations with the Arabs. He also encouraged the expansion of Israeli control in and around Arab east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

By contrast, Ehud Barak has spoken of the need for change and an immediate revival of the peace process.

Like his Labour predecessors, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, he believes in the principle of territorial compromise as a condition for peace.

His statements appear to set a new tone for the long-stalled talks between Israel and its Arab neighbours will soon resume.

The road ahead

But the start of negotiations will bring the Israelis and the Arabs face to face with a series of giant obstacles.

Judging from Mr Barak's election campaign, the new prime minister's views on a number of key issues differ less than might be imagined from those of Mr Netanyahu.

While the Labour leader believes in the land-for-peace principle and has not ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state, he has said Israel will only surrender what is absolutely necessary - and will certainly not give back all the territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Mr Barak also has said that while he wants to contain Jewish settlement in the West Bank, he does not view the Israeli presence there as a major issue in the peace process. On the future of Jerusalem, the new prime minister is as adamant as his predecessor that there is no scope for negotiations.

These points alone are certain to guarantee many weeks, if not months or years, of lengthy and difficult talks. There remains the question of the fate of Palestinian refugees as well as the Syrian insistence on the return of all the land in the Golan Heights under Israeli occupation as a condition for peace.

After the pandemonium of an election campaign dominated by domestic issues and by mud-slinging between party leaders, the Israeli people will now have to focus once more on the peace process.

The election showed how Israeli society is more divided than at any time in its history - between left and right, religious and secular, and between groups from different ethnic backgrounds. In Ehud Barak they have chosen a safe option.

He is a tough leader with a distinguished military record. At the same time he is likely to be more readily accepted by the international community than Mr Netanyahu.

But because of he must take into account the broad range of views expressed in the election campaign, the new prime minister may find his hands tied when it comes to reopening talks with the Arabs.

Any step towards peace is going to be fiercely opposed by the Israeli right, including the strong lobby of Israeli settlers. If he is too cautious in offering concessions, then he will face pressure from within his own constituency.

The Arab world will also be watching carefully for indications of how the new Labour leader intends to proceed.

During the election campaign, he was portrayed as the least bad option. The re-election of the Likud leader, Arabs agreed, would have meant the death of the peace process. Now there is at least a faint chance of it being revived.

The challenge for Mr Barak will be to convince the Arabs - as much as his friends and enemies at home - that he has the confidence to work for a permanent settlement guaranteeing peace and security for all sides. To put it mildly, his task will not be easy.


Gerald Butt is a former BBC Jerusalem correspondent and is editor of Al-Mushahid Assiyasi, the BBC Arabic magazine.

Links to more Israel elections stories are at the foot of the page.


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