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Barak falls out of favor; Lack of progress in peace talks hurts Israeli prime minister; 'Really up against it'; Former soldier firm in face of difficulties, including coalition rifts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM - A year after his landslide victory sent hopes soaring, Prime Minister Ehud Barak seems to be earning the label he once used so effectively to pummel his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu: "Takua," Hebrew for "stuck."

The peace process with Syria, in which Barak and President Clinton invested many hours and much prestige, appears hopelessly stalled, and talks with the Palestinians are inching along.

Seething frustration in the West Bank and Gaza has spilled over inside Israel, producing violent demonstrations and rising nationalism among Israeli Arabs.

Worse, Barak must make good on a campaign pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon by July, but without the cooperation from Syria that would make it relatively painless.

The possibility that the current low-level border conflict could give way to war is not being dismissed. Additionally, relations with Washington, on which Israelis place great importance, have been severely strained by Israel's deal to sell sophisticated early-warning aircraft to China.

And, far from subsiding, the clash of cultures and mutual resentment between Israel's secular and Orthodox populations is once again in the spotlight, with politically charged controversies over the funding of religious schools and the exemption of ultra-religious yeshiva students from military service."I think he's really up against it," says a senior Western diplomat who admires Barak.

One bright spot ought to be Israel's low-inflation economy, pulling itself out of a slump thanks to flourishing high-tech and research sectors and deft management by Israel's equivalent of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the now-retired Bank of Israel governor Jacob Frenkel.

The future promises to be brighter still, with West European nations that once held Israel at arm's length beating a path here to spur investment and trade.

But this news hasn't sunk in with the average Israeli. What he sees is still-high unemployment and a yawning gap between rich and poor, typified by displays of wealth in north Tel Aviv and the poverty and crime of neglected "development towns."

Asked in a recent poll commissioned by the newspaper Yediot Ahronot to give an overall grade to the prime minister, 61 percent of respondents rated him "not good to bad," and only half thought the highly decorated ex-commando and Army chief of staff was doing a good job in his second role as defense minister.

Political experts here say most prime ministers drop in public esteem the first two years after an election. But Barak's fall is striking because he started on such a high, winning 56 percent of the vote May 17 to oust a man many Israelis had come to distrust.

In what the editor of Ma'ariv, Yaakov Erez, described as "the most dramatic evening in Israeli politics," Barak spoke before thousands gathered for an election night rally in the Tel Aviv square named for his assassinated mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, pledging, "This is indeed the dawn of a new day."

He promised "not a peace which comes at the expense of security, but peace that will bring security." At that moment, it might have been easy to discount the menace of scores of Katyusha rockets falling on northern Israel that same evening from Hezbollah hideouts in southern Lebanon.

Barak set about building a broad, diverse coalition that would ensure him the solid backing of a Jewish majority for a comprehensive peace. Many consider this politically necessary in a state where peace and security are inextricably bound up with Israel's survival.

Coalition pressures

In so doing, he sowed the seeds of at least one of his main problems, a coalition in near disarray."You can have everyone inside if you have no agenda. But if you have an agenda, you've got to have someone outside," says parliament Speaker Avram Burg.

The coalition includes the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, whose leaders generally support the peace process but must be continually appeased with budget concessions for their schools and other programs. This has brought threats to bolt the coalition from Barak's most reliable peace ally, the secular, leftist Meretz Party.

Barak might have avoided these crises had he devoted his full attention to domestic affairs. But almost from the moment he took office, he fixed on a goal that had eluded his three predecessors - peace with Syria, the last powerful enemy on Israel's border.

To achieve it, Barak was prepared to relinquish the strategic advantage provided by the Golan Heights, the soaring 400-square-mile plateau and mountains that Israel took from Syria in the 1967 war. He hoped to shore up Israel's defenses and compensate uprooted settlers with the help of a $17 billion aid package from Washington.

But he was not prepared to leave any doubt as to who controlled the reservoir below the hills that supplies a full third of Israel's water - the tranquil Sea of Galilee. He insisted that Israel keep a swath of land at least several hundred yards deep on the eastern side of the lake.

For Syrian President Hafez el Assad, this fell short of what he had waited more than three decades to achieve: getting back all the territory Syria lost in 1967.

If Barak and Clinton thought they could persuade Assad to yield on this point, they were disappointed during Clinton's meeting with Assad in March in Geneva.

Their failure casts a shadow on other fronts. Assad has little incentive to cushion Barak's withdrawal from Lebanon by restraining Hezbollah, striking fear not only among Israelis who live in the north but among Israel's allies beyond the border, the South Lebanese Army. Also, it has undermined chances of a peace pact with the Palestinians. An initial, if grudging, mutual trust between Barak and Yasser Arafat eroded during the months when Barak concentrated on Syria and either inadvertently or deliberately relegated the Palestinians to sideshow status. Meanwhile, Barak seemed unable or unwilling to control the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Barak unshaken

Neither side has prepared public opinion for the sacrifices required in a final peace deal - particularly over Jerusalem, which both claim as a capital. Barak can't even muster coalition support to turn over three Arab villages outside the city to full Palestinian control.

He lets none of these troubles pierce a demeanor of awesome self-confidence - some call it arrogance. With the steel nerves of a lifelong warrior and the determination of someone who climbed rapidly through the ranks, he awaits history's judgment.

When told by an Israel Radio interviewer recently that "there is a great deal of disappointment in you after your first year as Israeli prime minister," Barak leapt in to point out that, in fact, his government had at that point held office for only 10 months."After 10 months, it can look back with satisfaction on its accomplishments and on the way we, myself included, upheld our commitments," he said.

Not everyone would agree."I'm hard-pressed to point to something he has done in the last year that could be used for electoral success," said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University. "He hasn't delivered anything big, anything major."

But even some opponents are unwilling to judge him a failure yet.

But, said Zalman Shoval, the opposition Likud bloc's foreign policy expert, if an early election were called now or in six months, "The Likud Party would have a pretty good chance of winning."

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