Barak's last stand?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2000, 12:00am

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is both a brave man and a desperate one. He will open the latest Middle East summit near Washington today with only the remnants of a coalition government behind him, two parliamentary no-confidence votes just completed and without his foreign minister, who decided to stay at home in protest.

Yet Mr Barak believes he can make great progress towards a final peace treaty with the Palestinians, perhaps even close the deal, in open-ended negotiations due to begin with President Bill Clinton as presiding officer. The tough former general's promise to strive for peace harder than did his predecessors got him elected in the first place, and he is armed with public opinion polls that say most Israelis support this latest effort.

Even so, Mr Barak is in trouble. He began his presidential term with great popular support. As the months passed, his parliamentary backing has crumbled as the so-called 'rejectionists' rallied opposition to giving anything to the Palestinians. This has put in jeopardy his ability to rule effectively, so the summit is a gamble for renewed prestige and authority.

On the Palestinian side, things are little better. President Yasser Arafat is increasingly infirm - Parkinson's disease is a popular guess - and his supporters also seem in no mood for concessions.

With great sense of righteousness, they are convinced they have been short-changed in past negotiations and they want to stop the habit. For the record at least, they are restating demands which they know the Israelis cannot possibly meet.

The current situation is indeed dangerous. A sense of frustration has set in on both sides, with conservative Jewish settlers more willing to push their way on to new territory and angry Palestinians more willing to strike back. If the talks do not show significant progress, the chances of another popular and murderous uprising against the Israelis will increase.

Mr Clinton has done the right thing by convening this summit in his final White House months. Messrs Barak and Arafat are to be commended for showing up. Needed next are some tangible signs of compromise.