Friday, April 21, 2000

Barak’s Immodest Diplomacy

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

Of the bastard progeny emanating from the despicable murder of Yitzchak Rabin, none is to be more regretted than the curtailment of criticism of Israeli leaders who wear the mantle of peace-makers. What is legitimate, even routine, in most democracies has become difficult, something to be avoided, lest the critic be accused of promoting violence against public officials.

Put simply, those who believe that Israel’s security is being compromised by Ehud Barak’s territorial concessions must couch their criticism in careful language.

Of course, many critics of the peace process undermined their credibility by seeming to prefer a permanent state of war over any peace agreement. Holding on to every cubit of territory gained in war was apparently more to their liking than the prospect of an agreement with the Arabs.

But a new realism has infiltrated the mind-set of the settlement and nationalist camps, so that when Barak took office, there was widespread recognition in these circles that concessions had to be made, that not every settlement or spot of land justified forfeiting the opportunity to make peace.

Curiously, at the other end of the ideological spectrum, a mind-set of absolutism paralleling what has now been abandoned by what is conveniently called the right wing has taken root in the most dovish elements of Israeli society. In this influential camp, approval is given to all that comes packaged in wrapping that is labeled “peace.” Details scarcely matter, nor is any price too costly to pay.

With Barak in control, Israel seems poised to give Hafez Assad and Yasir Arafat nearly all of their key demands. All of the Golan Heights to the Sea of Galilee and nearly to Tiberias is under consignment to Syria, with the Palestinians getting most of the West Bank, some of Jerusalem and reparations for Israeli sins.

We are assured that Israel’s security is guaranteed because it will say so in various documents. American troops, dollars and commitments are promised as co-signers. With malice toward none, not even toward Assad’s butchery, and equal blindness to history, we are asked to believe that today’s assurances are tomorrow’s insurance policy.

In a trenchant front-page column, Gary Rosenblatt recently asked whether Barak is going too far. I have additional questions regarding the prime minister’s negotiating style and whether Israel should pause to consider the lesson to be drawn from Oslo.

It cannot be gainsaid that Mr. Barak was elected on a peace platform and that until Israel’s voters decide otherwise, he has a mandate. But I wonder whether it includes disregarding commonly accepted rules of diplomacy.

There are good reasons why diplomatic negotiations are ordinarily not conducted at the summit during their preliminary stages. Until the contours of an agreement are reached, it is prudent to negotiate at a lower level. This allows the person on top to avoid direct pressure to make concessions and to reflect on what has been achieved by seasoned diplomats. In an excess of hubris, Barak decided to negotiate directly with the Syrians, brushing off Assad’s absence and the brush-off aimed at him by Syria’s foreign minister. Of course, those who are convinced of their invincibility need not pay heed to such inconsequential matters.

This misjudgment was compounded by a failure to take into account the implications of President Clinton’s final year. He is about nine months away from being an ex-president, and even closer to lame-duck status. The imperatives of the constitutional calendar impel Clinton to yearn for a decisive feather in his cap in the form of Middle East peace agreements, an accomplishment that whatever it may mean for Israel would fortify his place in history. Israel is gratuitously vulnerable to intense pressure from an administration that is winding down.

To make matters worse, Barak has a quirky penchant to set deadlines, a tactic that puts pressure on himself and Israel but no one else. If the deadlines are not met, he and Israel are judged to have failed on the peace front.

I doubt that a crash course in basic diplomacy would improve the situation, in view of Barak’s oversized estimation of his talent. But we should be willing to say that this is not the way to conduct diplomacy.

Israel must continue to strive for peace, taking risks along the way. There is a collateral obligation to understand what has happened since Oslo. That agreement was a testing-the-water exercise, which is why it was to be implemented in stages. For all that Israel has yielded — and more is to come — anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric has scarcely abated in the Arab world. We have grown accustomed to Arafat’s duplicitous use of moderate language when speaking in English and his strikingly different Arabic messages.

I guess we are supposed to shrug it off, as Israel’s leaders apparently do, and imagine that all the hate directed against Jews is just play-acting, that giving the Golan to Syria will mean that its textbooks will be purged of their anti-Israel content and the country’s media will no longer employ Der Sturmer-like cartoons and Nazi-era language to describe Jews.

Are we seriously to believe that signed agreements will result in a vast attitudinal transformation in the Arab world, that the spigot of hate will be turned off? It hasn’t happened as yet in Egypt.

We have just had something of an apology from the Pope for the Church’s sins against Jews. Adequate or not, there is universal recognition that centuries of drumming the message of anti-Jewish hatred into the Christian mind established an environment conducive to the Holocaust. If we — including Israeli leaders — believe that teaching children to hate is dangerous business, how can we fail to consider the frightening implications of the culture of hatred that permeates nearly all of the Arab world?