Israelis, in S.F., say Barak fails to comprehend Arafats motives

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was called a reluctant warrior for peace. His counterpart, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, was called a warrior reluctant for peace.

That's the crux of the current crisis, according to panelists at a San Francisco talk last week on "The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process: What Happened? What will Happen Now?"

"Ehud Barak thought he was negotiating for an end to all conflict," said Hirsh Goodman, the founder of the Jerusalem Report. "That was his mistake, because Yasser Arafat is not the man to sign the end of any conflict agreement," Goodman told the standing-room-only crowd at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Barak's willingness to make more concessions than any other prime minister in Israeli history was both brave and naive, according to Professor Avishay Braverman, president of Ben- Gurion University of the Negev.

"Barak is a very smart man who failed to understand his negotiating partner," said Braverman, who ticked off a list of Barak's academic achievements.

What ultimately doomed the peace talks was Arafat's transparent messianic complex, according to Braverman, who added that the Palestinian leader is unwilling to compromise on anything that fails to present him as the sole savior of his people.

Both Goodman and Braverman also painted Arafat's organization as being riddled with cronyism, kickbacks and apathy.

Nonetheless, Israel must also shoulder some of the blame for the collapse of the peace talks, according to Goodman.

He called Likud leader Ariel Sharon's visit to Temple Mount in Jerusalem "a gift to Arafat from God."

"After the talks failed, Arafat was isolated by world opinion," said Goodman, who is currently a senior research fellow at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. "He was totally boxed in, with nowhere to go."

But Arafat was saved from an ignominious fate, he said, by Sharon's politically inspired visit, which was "nothing more than an attempt to divert attention" from former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a potential rival for the Likud leadership.

Goodman, a former newsman, also lashed out at media coverage of the conflict, calling it "the worst coverage I've seen in my 30 years of journalism.

"You have correspondents parachuting in amid crossfire, and not knowing whether they're in Bosnia, Chechnya or the West Bank," he said, adding that there is very little talk about the weapons being used against Israelis.

"This is much more than kids throwing rocks," he continued. "And very little is mentioned about Israel's contained response to the situation. We could have been sending in troops by the thousands, but the government has exercised extreme caution in its response.

"Yasser Arafat wants to turn Israel into Bosnia, and the Israeli government won't let that happen."

A protracted war with religious overtones would be calamitous far beyond the Middle East, Braverman concurred, calling it his "greatest fear."

"If this turns into a religious battle between Judaism and Islam, it will ignite the anger and passion of the entire Arab world, and Judaism would surely end up with the short end of that stick."

Both speakers suggested that Israel might want to look inward for the answer to the conflict, while mending some of its own lingering problems.

Braverman lauded Israel's high-tech accomplishments, but decried the concomitant economic disparity between the haves and have-nots. Such inequality, he said, is surpassed only by the United States.

"Israel seems to be heading toward a philosophy of 'every tribe for themselves,' which is very damaging for the country," he said. "If greed is the only concern for the Israelis, then we should all move to Silicon Valley."

Goodman said that Israel's Arab citizens also have to be granted full rights, and that they have been accorded "second-class status for far too long.

"Israeli Arabs constitute 20 percent of the population, but only 2 percent of the civil service. That is entirely wrong, and it's got to change."

The evening's other speaker, and the only one wearing a kippah, was Yair Sheleg, the Jewish affairs correspondent for the daily newspaper Ha'aretz.

Sheleg seemed much less concerned with the need for introspection than the other two speakers.

"I think the leftists are getting a little taste of reality," he said. "Too much self-guilt or self-blame is not good."

The talk was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, American Associates of Ben-Gurion University and the JCC of S.F., in cooperation with L'Atid of Hadassah.