Barak Willing to Buck the Tide to Forge Mid-East Peace

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak Wednesday said next week's peace summit involving himself, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and President Bill Clinton will provide an historic opportunity "to solve the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians."

Barak spent Wednesday in London and Paris, meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac.

Barak said he is willing to make an agreement with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat even if he had only a handful of ministers to support him. Barak added that he had won a "landslide victory" in elections a year ago based on his peace process platform, which he is implementing now.

"I told the public in advance exactly what we are going to do in regards to the agreement with the Palestinians," Barak told reporters. "Basically we are implementing exactly what we have taken upon ourselves during the elections and we are determined to push it forward."

"If there is a possibility of having an agreement, even if I stay with nine ministers and one quarter of the Knesset behind me, we will do it and we'll bring it to the people," Barak said.

However, Barak's critics, including those in his own government, have charged that he is willing to go way beyond the "red lines" he set in his campaign and that he will give away more than 90 percent of the disputed West Bank territories, uproot Israelis from their homes, divide Jerusalem, and allow massive immigration to Israel of so-called Palestinian refugees.

Several of Barak's coalition partners have threatened to quit the government if Barak goes to Washington without any defined "red lines."

Barak's second largest coalition partner, the 17-member ultra-Orthodox Shas party, called on Barak, after the announcement, to convene a meeting of coalition faction heads and ministers to establish "red lines" before Barak leaves for Washington.

Interior Minister Natan Sharansky, who has threatened to quit the coalition if Barak has not defined Israel's negotiating position before he leaves for a summit, was consulting with his faction.

A spokesman in his office said Sharansky would announce his decision about the government at a previously scheduled massive rally in Jerusalem Wednesday night.

The opposition Likud party responded to Barak's statements and the summit announcement by saying Barak was behaving like a "dictator" because he said he did not need the support of the government to come to an agreement.

Even if Barak's coalition government collapses, it will not prevent him from negotiating an agreement. However, it would make parliamentary approval dependent on the Arab factions in the Knesset.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat did not immediately respond to the announcement but Presidential spokesman Marwan Kanafani said it was obvious discussions about the summit had already been taking place.

Kanafani said previously, the PA had stated that if President Clinton issued an invitation to Arafat to attend a summit, the PA would "look very positively" on that.

Israel and the PA agreed less than a year ago to reach, by September 13th of this year, a final agreement on the explosive issues that divided them throughout the 20th century. Since then, however, negotiators have been unable to agreement on any of the main issues: Jerusalem, disputed West Bank territory, Palestinian refugees, final borders or water.

Barak pushed for the summit, saying the issues were so difficult that the only recourse was for the leaders themselves to make a deal. However, the PA was hoping that a summit would be postponed until the gaps between the sides could be narrowed.