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Barak departure leaves questions

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February 22, 2001 

  

JERUSALEM (AP) Ehud Barak's departure from the Israeli political stage was anything but elegant, coming after a devastating defeat at the polls, repeated flip-flops on serving under his successor, and the emergence of a humiliating public chorus of former supporters begging him to bow out.


It was a dizzying fall for a man who swept to power less than two years ago.


As Israelis scrambled Wednesday to explain Barak's demise, some blamed his arrogance, others saw him as a victim of circumstance and many concluded that Israel Ariel Sharon will be Israel's fifth prime minister in six years had little hope of a stable government.


``The question is whether there will ever be a leader able to handle problems that seem unresolvable,'' said Arieh Caspi, a commentator for the Haaretz newspaper. ``There are countries in the world like Italy, who've had a government per year for periods but can we afford such a thing here? It's a terrifying thing.''


On Wednesday, a day after Barak gave up the chairmanship of the Labor Party and retired from politics, Labor's collective leadership softened its conditions for joining Sharon in a unity government.


Officials said the party agreed to join even if Sharon brings in a far-right bloc whose leaders have talked of expelling Palestinians from the West Bank and bombing Egypt and Iran if a war breaks out. Barak opposed teaming up with them. A Labor Party convention is set for Monday to vote on joining Sharon's government.


Barak convinced many Israelis that comprehensive peace with the Arabs was within reach. He offered Syria and the Palestinians land-for-peace deals, but the Arabs were unmoved, and now Israel finds itself in a fifth month of guerrilla warfare with the Palestinians.


Israelis are struggling to figure out what happened and why.


Caspi believes Barak's plan was essentially correct, if ahead of its time: a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, sharing Jerusalem, and in what is perhaps many Israelis' ultimate goal a physical ``separation'' from the Palestinians.


But Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, sees separation as a pipe dream because the ``reality is that this is a binational condition.''


Furthermore, Benvenisti said, it was wrong for Barak to insist on an ``end-of-conflict'' declaration, which forced the Palestinians to insist on the ``right of return'' for millions of refugees to Israel.


``History will show that Mr. Barak was a total disaster,'' Benvenisti said. ``The whole trick to conflict resolution is to do what is possible, and not come up with a bold blueprint, knowing full well that it is unacceptable.'' Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ``had to refuse, and then what happened is the intefadeh,'' Benvenisti said.


That Palestinian uprising broke out in late September, and it has not abated despite international pressure, harsh Israeli countermeasures, and considerable suffering.


Most of the 406 people killed have been Palestinians, and the Palestinian economy is in utter shambles. Israelis suffered too: Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza have been targeted by snipers and even mortar fire; bombs have exploded in Israeli cities; tourism collapsed and the Israeli economy is in recession.


This surely played a major role in Ariel Sharon's 25-point victory over Barak on Feb. 6 but Barak was unpopular for reasons unrelated to war and peace.


From the outset, his style of governance was high-handed, reflecting his past as Israel's military chief. He was impatient with advice and rarely sought or accepted it.


And as Barak struggled to maintain his parliamentary majority he earned a reputation for ``zigzagging'' on issues important to some voters. He reneged on promises to end draft exemptions for tens of thousands of seminary students, and he proposed, abandoned, proposed again and ultimately never pursued a ``civil revolution'' that would end intrusion of religion into the lives of Israel's secular majority such as no public transport on the Jewish Sabbath.


Then there was Barak's clumsy exit.


On election night, he stunned his Labor Party faithful by announcing he would leave politics. But within days, he reversed himself and was ready to accept the defense portfolio in a joint government between Labor and Sharon's Likud.


That drew criticism from party rivals and close advisers alike which Barak first dismissed and then appeared to give in to when he wrote Sharon late Tuesday, formally rejecting his offer.


Some supporters of the 59-year-old Barak were quick to point out that Israeli politicians are remarkably prone to comebacks: Benjamin Netanyahu was trounced by Barak in 1999, smoothly retired from politics, and is now enormously popular; Barak's heir-apparent as head of Labor is multiple election loser Shimon Peres.


``When he understood he was unwanted he said `thanks very much' and went home,'' said Eldad Yaniv, a close Barak aide. ``When the public will be ready he'll be back, and I have no doubt he'll again be the prime minister of Israel.''



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