EDITORIAL 2  12-07-1999

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 12.07.99
Barak begins The new Israeli prime minister, Mr Ehud Barak, has accomplished a minor miracle in simply assembling his government. His eight party coalition?s 15 seat majority in the Knesset and his 56 per cent of the prime ministerial vote is remarkable. It provides him a degree of political leeway and freedom from small party blackmail that his predecessor, Mr Binyamin Netanyahu, never had. As impressive has been his ability to avoid a coalition built around one of the major divides within Israeli society: secular versus religious Jews or between opponents and supporters of the west Asian peace process. This will ensure that any major government decisions on rabbinical authority or on fulfilling the Oslo agreement will not tear Israel in half, inspiring the sort of violence that led to Yitzhak Rabin?s assassination. Mr Barak?s tortuous negotiations earned curious allies: two orthodox religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, and a party that supports Jewish settlement of the West Bank, the National Religious Party. He sacrificed some of his stronger proposals for secularization along the way, but lost only two anti-religious parliamentarians. What the Israeli elections showed, and Mr Barak?s coalition proves, is that the peace process is no longer the key electoral issue. Much more passion is being expended over the economy, secularism and the division of government patronage. Mr Netanyahu was shown the boot in part because of a secular backlash, in part because he was so disliked as a person. This made his coalition rickety, forward policy movement impossible. While Mr Netanyahu slowed the peace process down to a crawl, there was a recognition by most Israelis that the main parties differed only on the speed of implementation. Mr Barak seems interested in putting peace on the fast lane and getting a Palestinian state up and running quickly. The contrast with Mr Netanyahu?s stop and go method is stark. But it underlines that the Palestinian peace process is seen as a given, only its timing is debated. Mr Barak has expressed a desire to skip the interim Wye agreement and enter into negotiations for a final peace immediately. He will spend most of this month meeting his Arab neighbours and the United States. For him, however, the real issue is a peace treaty with Syria. This means making a final decision on the status of the Golan heights and bringing to a close Israel?s overly expensive occupation of south Lebanon. It has been said Israel?s heroic age is coming to a close. Arabs accept that they cannot evict the Jews. The Palestinians seem reconciled to being granted a rump state. Israelis are now turning inward, preferring to look at the struggle between religious and secular Jews for the soul of Zionism and concentrating on driving their economy into the ranks of the Western world. Mr Barak seems ready to lead in this direction.