News Analysis: Baraks political future rests on fate of Syria referendum

Yet it was on everyone's minds and lips here since the long-stalled Syrian-Israeli peace track suddenly burst back into life in Washington last week, when Barak held two days of talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa.

Negotiations will resume Jan. 3 in West Virginia.

During the Israeli television interview, Barak replied confidently that he would bring back from the negotiations with Syria "the kind of good, solid, advantageous agreement that will win a sweeping majority" in a referendum.

That, said the premier, was the only kind of agreement he would be prepared to sign.

On Sunday, Barak told his Cabinet that in early rounds of negotiations he would seek a core agreement with Damascus that covers the main issues facing the two sides. He also expressed his determination to pursue the Syrian and Palestinian negotiations simultaneously.

Despite his show of optimism during the television interview, many in the pro-peace camp are concerned over the prospect of the looming referendum — the first ever in Israel's history.

Barak's supporters all recognize that the vote will in fact be tantamount to a mid-term election — and if Barak fails, he will have to resign.

Some in the premier's camp feel, though few are prepared to say so publicly, that he will need a substantial margin to achieve a credible win in the referendum — something like the 56-44 percent edge by which he defeated Benjamin Netanyahu in the May election.

That way he would not be prone to accusations from the right that his victory was based on the votes of Israeli Arabs, and that he lost Jewish voters.

Though his supporters are buoyed and comforted by Barak's own air of confidence, many cannot shake off their anxiety as they survey the opinion polls and the perilous state of the governing coalition.

The polls show the country divided fairly evenly on the issue of withdrawal from all of the Golan Heights in return for a full peace with Syria.

If anything, the anti-withdrawal camp seems to have the edge at this time.

Meanwhile, the National Religious Party has given notice that it will secede from the coalition the moment a land-for-peace accord is signed.

Barak has courted the NRP, believing that its presence within his government gives him invaluable moral and political backing in the negotiations with the Palestinians.

The fact that the pro-settler NRP seemed prepared to swallow the dismantling of several settler outposts in the West Bank was seen as an important success for Barak, who is attempting to represent as wide a constituency as possible in his peacemaking efforts.

However, the NRP may well not be alone when it secedes over the Golan.

Yisrael Ba'Aliyah, the Russian immigrant party led by Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, is likely to leave, too.

Sharansky's No. 2, Yuli Edelstein, is chairman of a pro-Golan lobby of Knesset members and is close to the West Bank settlers, too. And Sharansky himself has voiced profound misgivings over the evolving accord with Damascus.

Worse still, from Barak's viewpoint, Sharansky has gone on record with the prediction that the accord will not win a majority in the referendum. Sharansky said over the weekend he believes the Russian immigrant community, many of whom live in the Golan, will vote against it.

The conventional wisdom is that most of the Russian immigrants are hardliners when it comes to territorial concessions. Nor do they have much respect for the peace promises of Moscow's former client, Syrian President Hafez Assad.

If Sharansky comes out unequivocally against the accord, that in itself would presumably affect the votes of a considerable number of the immigrants.

These uncomfortable cracks within his coalition make it all the more important for Barak to ensure the solid support of his single largest coalition partner, the fervently religious Shas Party.

Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is thought to believe that the Golan is not part of the biblical Land of Israel and, moreover, that land-for-peace is a worthy policy if it results in the saving of Israeli lives.

Without a doubt, Yosef has the religious and moral authority to ensure that all 17 Shas legislators vote in favor of an accord with Syria — if he himself decides to support it.