Returning home to face a gathering political storm, Prime Minister Ehud Barak sought to assure Israelis tonight that any concessions he makes in a peace deal with Syria will be matched by guarantees to protect the Jewish state's security and water sources.
In back-to-back television interviews, Barak acknowledged the formidable and apparently growing public opposition to prospects that Israel might reach a peace agreement that commits it to give back the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and now home to 17,000 Israelis. But the Israeli leader, projecting self-assurance and resolve, asserted that when a deal is made, a majority of Israelis--including some of the 100,000 or more who demonstrated against a possible Golan withdrawal Monday in Tel Aviv--will vote yes in the nationwide referendum that he has promised to hold on the issue.
"I know that if we bring the agreement that I intend to bring, which will strengthen security, bring the boys home from Lebanon, make openings to the Arab world and raise to a higher level the military capability and early warning systems of the army, many, many of these worried people will vote for the agreement," he said.
Barak also urged Israelis to ignore the demeanor of the chief Syrian negotiator, Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa, who has infuriated people here by refusing publicly to shake Barak's hand.
"It's clear to everybody that even President Assad will have to see us and have to make the decision and also to shake hands," he said, referring to Syrian leader Hafez Assad. "If we can't reach an agreement, there won't be any value to the question of whether we sat with him 10 times or hugged him seven times. All this is of minor importance compared to the question of whether it is or isn't possible to guarantee a different future for the state of Israel through regional peace treaties."
Barak spoke on Israel's two major evening news programs barely four hours after arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport after a week of intensive talks with Syrian negotiators in Shepherdstown, W. Va. He has a week before he returns to the United States for the next round of talks, beginning next Wednesday, and he clearly intends to use the time to chip away at the suspicion and opposition that has mounted in his absence.
More than 60 percent of Israelis surveyed in a recent poll said they oppose forfeiting the Golan Heights, a strategically important plateau that dominates the Israeli-Syrian border region. That stand poses a serious political challenge for Barak, whose government could collapse if a peace deal with Syria were rejected in the referendum.
In addition to Barak's political foes--nationalist and right-wing religious Israelis--opponents of a withdrawal from the Golan include Russian-speaking immigrants, who voted narrowly for Barak last spring. Even some of his closest allies--liberal, secular voters--are leaning against a deal.
Moreover, two members of his cabinet have threatened to resign if he makes a deal with Syria--Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, who leads the main Russian-immigrant party, and Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy, who leads a party representing Jewish settlers. Those defections would leave Barak with a bare-bones majority in parliament, hardly a strong platform from which to campaign for a deal of such importance.