Is Ehud Barak really the ultra-left-winger he appears to be, the prime minister who offers more concessions than any of his predecessors to the Arabs? Or might he be a shrewd nationalist who is just going through the motions of diplomacy?
The second idea sounds crazy, but give it a hearing. According to well-informed analysts, on taking office in mid-1999 Barak heard from intelligence that unless he gave Syria's Hafez Assad and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat everything they demanded, they would reject his diplomatic overtures.
Assad insisted on regaining Syria's pre-1967 borders; the Palestinians demanded full sovereignty over their holy places in Jerusalem. Offered as much as 95 percent of their demands, they would say no to the whole package. According to these analysts, Barak understood that he could offer almost everything to his Arab interlocutors, knowing that they would turn him down.
He saw this as a painless opportunity to offer vast concessions, thereby winning a reputation for magnanimity without ever having to deliver. He had to do two things however: stop short of offering enough for the Arabs to say "yes," and convince the world of his sincerity by some great acting.
From the very start of his prime ministry, some observers suspected this extraordinary deception.
The Middle East Media and Research Institute wrote about Barak tricking the Syrians by pretending to be flexible in ways he was not, thereby leading them into what the Syrians called "a trap." The Left devised the epithet "Barakyahu," pointing to the similarities with his predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu.
Arabs complained about Barak seeing negotiations as "a public relations job" (as the Syrian newspaper A-Thawra put it). "We do not see a difference between Barak and Netanyahu," commented Ikrima Sabri, Arafat's appointee as mufti of Jerusalem. A Jordanian columnist even longed for the good old days of Netanyahu.
A year later, some analysts are more convinced than ever that Barak is a secret hardliner.
COMMENTATOR Yosef Goell has presented the argument in these pages. How else, he asks, can one explain Barak's agreeing to "give up all of the Golan [which would truly have endangered Israel] and then to oppose ceding another few square kilometers"? This makes sense, Goell reasons, only by viewing the seeming generosity on the Golan Heights as "a trap for the greedy Assad to up his ante beyond any reasonable limits" - and end up with nothing.
Ditto for Jerusalem, writes Goell: Barak knew that no matter how generous he would be, Arafat would turn him down. And so, "putting Jerusalem on the table was a trap set by Barak for Arafat." The scheme worked. Barak got the rejection he wanted and "the goodwill of US President Bill Clinton and his team" into the bargain.
Short of Barak's confessing all, there is no way to prove this thesis. There are, however, bits of evidence to support it. For example, writing in Ha'aretz, Uzi Benziman reports on July's summit at Camp David that Barak's associates believe "he took a dangerous gamble by agreeing to Clinton's latest proposal, based on his assumption that Arafat would reject it."
Those same associates further noted that, at times during the summit, "when it appeared that Arafat and Clinton were reaching some form of understanding . . . Barak's face clouded over and he was seized by anxiety."
If true, this strategy helps unravel several mysteries: Why, against the advice of many on the Left, Barak insists on negotiating only a final status agreement (rather than more feasible interim agreements). Why Shimon Peres and Leah Rabin have of late condemned him. Why Barak persists, even after the Camp David II fiasco, with new proposals for sharing the Temple Mount. Why he is so extremely secretive.
Further, the strategy has all the hallmarks of Barak's career-long signature approach: go to the heart of the enemy via deception.
Could it be true that Barak is playing so sophisticated and dangerous a game? This writer, author of two books dismissing conspiracy theories, is plenty reluctant to believe that things are other than what they appear to be. And yet ...
Arab-Israeli diplomacy lends itself to double games because the various leaders find themselves under huge pressure to settle their differences. If Barak really is pretending to want to sign agreements with his foes, he is doing nothing more strange than Assad and Arafat have long done.
Jan. 29, 2012 update: A particularly striking quote by Barak, now Israel's minister of defense, reminds me of this 11-plus-year-old analysis. Barak here notes that some leading figures in the security agencies disagree with him and now-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about the extent of the Iranian nuclear danger to Israel: "It's good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions. But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us."
Comments: (1) As this statement suggests, Barak and Netanyahu have worked closely and effectively together; not only that, but Barak has served effectively as foreign minister to Western governments in addition to his formal portfolio as defense minister. (2) While I don't hold to the Barak-as-right-winger thesis proffered above, it does have its strengths.