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BARAK BRAKES ON OLMERT

Defense Minister Barak Opposes Prime Minister Olmert's Plan To Lift West Bank Checkpoints

Olmert & Barak Appear To Be On Collision Course But Will Likely Reach Modus Vivendi For Short Term

Labor Cabinet Minister Ben Eliezer: 'Palestinian Suicide Bombers Will Again Threaten Israeli Civilians If Vital Checkpoints Are Lifted'

Defense Minister Ehud Barak (Photo: Amit Shabi)

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have crossed swords over what security risks should be taken in order to promote renewed peace contacts with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert appears eager to produce results by easing restrictions on Palestinian movement on West Bank. However, sources close to Barak warn of a renewed threat of Palestinian suicide bombers if vital checkpoints are removed. IsraCast is of the view that Olmert of Kadima and Barak of Labor both require time to rebuild their leadership images with Israeli voters and therefore they will seek a short-term Modus vivendi to prevent a breakup of the government coalition.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has put the brakes on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plans for more security concessions to the Palestinians. Barak is balking at Olmert's wide-scale lifting of checkpoints on the West Bank that interfere with the Palestinians freedom of movement.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (Photo: Amit Shabi)

In an attempt to shore up Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Olmert wants to include a number of checkpoints. The Israeli leader is now gung- ho about peace prospects with Abbas after the Palestinian leader and his Fatah party were expelled from the Gaza Strip in the bloody Hamas takeover in June.

Barak has not gone public but one of his confidants has - Labor cabinet minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer has said: 'The checkpoints are vital in blocking the return of Palestinian suicide bombers to Israeli towns and cities'. Ben Eliezer went on to say Barak was ready to promote the peace process with Mahmoud Abbas but not at the expense of security for Israeli civilians. But inside Labor, Barak's main rival Knesset Member Ami Ayalon charged that Barak was playing politics and trying to cramp Olmert's peace moves. Ayalon insinuated this was part of the rivalry for the country's leadership between Barak and Olmert. Labor cabinet minister Ben Eliezer, a confidant of Barak, has denied the allegation adding that Barak has had his fill of Palestinian broken promises.

The Defense Minister was not ready to put Israeli civilians at risk while the Fatah terror network had not yet been dismantled on the West Bank. Barak, who offered Yasser Arafat a Palestinian state at Camp David 2000, has also warned that Israel could not consider a West Bank withdrawal until it has an anti - missile defense system in place that could knock out Qassam or Katyusha rockets launched at Israeli population centers and Ben-Gurion airport.

Moreover, Yediot Ahronot quotes the Defense Minister as saying that talk of a Palestinian peace deal was no more than a 'fantasy'. Barak's bureau immediately denied the newspaper report. In any event, Barak's tone runs counter to Olmert's current policy of trying to build momentum by concessions in his renewed contacts with Abbas and prior to this fall's regional peace meeting called by U.S. President George Bush. Olmert, the leader of the centrist Kadima party, appears to have shifted far to the Left adopting the political posture of Labor doves - Ayalon's critique of Barak is testimony. This has led to conjecture that Olmert is going for broke trying to improve his image with Israeli voters by demonstrating his ability to advance the peace process with Abbas. In this sense time is all important with the Winograd final report into the Second Lebanon War about to be made public some time soon.

A final and conclusive condemnation of the PM's handling of the war could trigger Olmert's downfall. Barak has previously warned that he would pull Labor out of the coalition after the report. So with Winograd breathing down his neck, Olmert may be trying to accumulate some credibility as a peace maker - enough to survive demands for his resignation that are likely to follow Winograd. Meanwhile by showing movement with the Palestinians, Olmert is proving he is not a lame duck. It appears that Barak is not going to play along if the lifting checkpoints for example literally blows up in Israel's face.

Seven years ago, Barak as prime minister carried out the unilateral IDF withdrawal from south Lebanon a move his critics contend precipitated last summer's war with Hezbollah. Smarting from that criticism, Barak is going to be very careful about any new security concessions that could come back to haunt him. Like Olmert, Barak is also trying to restore his credibility as a potential prime minister. Olmert is doing so in the political sphere talking of calculated risks while Barak is pushing for security first and this why they appear to be on a collision course. But both need time to recoup their political losses and that is why they will likely reach some form of Modus vivendi for the short term; but a continuing partnership in the long term is dubious.

David Essing

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