Baraks 100 days: Kudos on peace, jeers on economy

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JERUSALEM — On Day 100 of Ehud Barak's term in office, the prime minister earned a big victory: He and settler leaders agreed to dismantle 12 West Bank outposts.

Only 24 hours earlier, some of those leaders had threatened to resist "down to the last brick" a committee decision to dismantle 15 of the outposts.

For the price of three outposts, Barak temporarily, at least, earned the cooperation of the settlers.

The latest compromise represents Barak's main achievement so far — and is indicative of how observers are viewing his performance.

While he has received high marks on the peace front, and for warming relations with the United States, he is generally considered to have accomplished little regarding the economy and other domestic matters.

Although there has been some grassroots opposition to the move, the compromise on the outposts was no small achievement.

Indeed, earlier this week young settler activists demonstrated against the compromise at an unauthorized hilltop outpost near Ramallah, foiling attempts to dismantle it. However, late Tuesday, not long after Barak issued veiled threats to force the evacuation of some of these outposts, the settlers began dismantling a water tower.

As Barak attempts to reach an agreement with the Palestinians on a framework for a permanent-status agreement within the next 100 days, he was able to avoid a direct confrontation with the Israeli right. Indeed, at his meeting with the settlers, Barak went out of his way to compliment them for their "fantastic achievements" and express his "deep empathy" for the settlements.

While Likud leader Ariel Sharon accused Barak of conspiring with Yasser Arafat against the settlers, other ministers on the right praised the agreement.

And while some members of the Israeli left might have wanted more outposts dismantled, the memory of right-wing former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is too fresh in their minds not to forgive his mistakes.

Elsewhere, Barak has achieved less.

When Barak took office, he pledged to withdraw from Lebanon within a year. But after initial signs of a warming of relations between Israel and Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, there has apparently been no real progress in bringing the two countries back to the negotiating table for the first time since 1996.

"I have no doubt that when during the election campaign he promised to get the army out of Lebanon within a year, it was not more than a figure of speech. But then he was caught by his own words, and he is now bound by a commitment which he did not have in the first place," settler leader Elyakim Haetzni of Kiryat Arba, said this week.

Progress on the economy appears to be just as slow.

When Barak took office, he made the peace process a priority, and critics say he has ignored the domestic front.

One of his campaign promises was to make sure that "the old woman from Sderot" — who represents poorer segments of Israeli society — would no longer lie neglected in a hospital corridor.

"The way Barak copes with the challenges, the old woman must have died a few weeks ago," quipped writer Nir Bar'am.

Unemployment is still high, the health-care system is still in deep financial crisis, budgets for cultural projects have been cut, and salaries for social workers and Arab teachers have been put on hold.

Barak believes that progress in the peace process will inject life into the economy. But analysts say that while there are hints of a cyclical recovery, Barak was unable to push through significant changes in the budget framework that would jump-start the economy out of its 4-year-old slowdown.

In internal politics, Barak has generally done as he pleased. True, he had to reverse his initial draft for a new state budget following across-the-board criticism that the budget did not contain enough social spending.

But he did include Shas in the coalition, despite the opposition of many of his own supporters, and on his own terms: Convicted criminal and Shas leader Aryeh Deri was not allowed to head the party.

In addition, religious leaders relented and allowed power plant parts to be moved on Shabbat despite threats to quit the coalition over the issue. And state funding of Shas' educational system decreased from a generous current of money to a carefully controlled trickle.

Suspicious by nature, Barak has succeeded in creating a large number of political foes in his own party.

Critics say he doesn't consult his ministers enough and gives them too little credit. When Transportation Minister Yitzhak Mordechai asked him recently whether the ministers could view certain defense documents, Barak responded offhandedly: "Some you will see, some you won't."

Barak has alienated influential politicians such as Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Environment Minister Dalia Itzik by pushing them to lesser ministries. Ben-Ami wanted the foreign or finance ministries; Itzik wanted the education post.

Barak has also managed to aggravate even his ally David Levy, the foreign minister, by not inviting him to a surprise overnight meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. Nor does Barak show any signs he intends to make any use of the experience of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who is now the regional cooperation minister.

So while Barak's handling of the peace process appears to have won some time with the Israeli public, his honeymoon is over.

"Barak should know that what he hears from his own people and from the media is totally different than what the public thinks of him. People stop me in the street and ask me when are we finally going to get rid of him," Likud Knesset member Silvan Shalom said.

But if the comment from a member of Likud is to be expected, another is not: Recent opinion polls have shown that Barak's popularity among Russian emigrants, whose support helped elect him, has dropped considerably in the past three months.