Polls in Israel have for years shown support for the idea of land for peace, but the peace movement has had a more difficult time translating that support into permanent and effective governmental policy, as seen in Prime Minister Ehud Barak's inability to make significant progress in the peace process. The reason, in my opinion, is the powerful role of religious fanatics. Ironically, it is not about the peace issue, but the issue of using state power to impose religion--and to build and sustain religious institutions--on which these religious Jews take their last stand.

It never occurs to those holding up the peace process that they are desecrating God's name by associating it with their own desire to promote their self-interest, even at the expense of peace or the general well-being. So, for example, the religious political party Shas, led by its Council of Sages, voted "no confidence" in the Barak government because a government official challenged the way Shas uses public funds to advance its own private religious educational institutions. In a similar vein, other ultra-Orthodox parties threaten to leave any government that does not give them the right to dictate who gets to pray at the Western Wall, who gets to be called a Jew, and who gets to be officially married and divorced in Israel.

Many of us who are deeply committed to Judaism, God, and Torah find this behavior despicable. It means that religious people are always aligned in the public mind with the most reactionary forces in Israel. And it thoroughly alienates secular Jews, making it much harder for those of us who believe the Jewish people need a spiritual renewal to get a hearing among Israelis who identify religion only with religious fanatics.

Why should these religious people prove such an obstacle?

The real reason is that the secular leadership doesn't have the courage to fight for what it believes in, while the religious minority does.

Consider, for example, the current quagmire facing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

The defection of the Shas party and the likelihood of further postponements in the peace process lead people to believe Barak's hands are tied because he doesn't have the political backing for a strong deal with the Palestinians. That same argument has been used by Barak in the negotiations: He says he can't give away too much or he won't get the backing of the Israeli people.

But this has been a self-created problem. Barak never had to take Shas or the settler-oriented National Religious Party into the government.

Instead, he could have pieced together a coalition based on people who supported the peace process and the separation of state from religion. He refused because that would have required accepting the active participation of Arab parties, and the conventional wisdom among much of the Israeli public is that a government dependent on Israeli Arabs does not have the "legitimacy" to make peace.

Barak had a clear mandate for peace. The peace option would have required the courage to say (a) that he rejected the racist assumption that Arab Israelis are less "real Israelis" than Jewish Israelis; (b) that settlers should plan to live in peace as a minority within a Palestinian state, because Israel would not seek to include most of the West Bank settlements; and (c) that the Old City would remain within Israel under shared administration, and that Arab East Jerusalem would become the capital of a Palestinian state.

Had Barak taken this kind of clear and unequivocal stand from the start, he would have built considerable popular support. Instead, he followed the worst possible scenario: On the one hand, he engaged in secret negotiations that the right was able to represent as "giving away too much," while on the other hand, he publicly placated the settlers, did little to prepare the Israeli public for significant concessions, and allowed the discussion to be dominated by his critics.

Instead of developing a discourse of reconciliation that used his leadership position to create the foundations for a genuine transfer of land for peace, Barak talked about leaving 150,000 or more settlers in the West Bank, many of them believers that God gave the entire land to the Jewish people and that any Palestinian state is a betrayal of God's will. He adopted the inflexible language of the right on Jerusalem as "the united, eternal capital of the Jewish people," as though the 200,000 Palestinians could be ignored. He imagined that sounding tough would make people trust him when compromises would have to be made.

But when it counted, he wasn't tough but unbelievably lacking in courage. Instead of preparing for the withdrawal of Lebanon in a way that cared for the fate of those who had fought at our side, the SLA was abandoned in a way certain to make Israelis feel less secure. We, who always opposed the invasion and occupation of Lebanon, would still have advocated a slower and more thought-through withdrawal process.

Similarly, his willingness to negotiate with Shas rather than fire them from his government once they had voted no confidence in the very government in which they were participants sent a terrible signal: This guy is so desperate, he will grovel at the feet of his political enemies.

No wonder, then, that Barak now finds himself without the political flexibility to negotiate a settlement that can last. Even if Arafat, reminded of his own age and weakness by the recent death of Mideast tyrant Hafez Assad of Syria, accepts a deal yielding Israel 20% or more of the West Bank, Barak will face huge resistance from Israelis who just a year ago might have been willing to follow him had he taken bold and decisive steps to reach a final settlement with the Palestinians.

Palestinians already compromised by accepting just the West Bank and Gaza, by accepting Israel's right to create a Jewish state (with unequal rights for Jews and lesser rights for Palestinians enshrined in the Law of Return) on the majority of the land.

Now it's time for the Israeli people to make a decision. They can only do that if Barak calls for new elections himself--and presents the specifics of an agreement that meets the reasonable expectations of the Palestinian people. Present it, fight for it, and let Israelis decide. Yet Barak and his Meretz allies may be so enamored of their current power that they are unable to hear this simple message: Fighting for peace in a principled and open and honest manner is the best and most effective way to regain trust and retain power.

If Barak could do that, the religious fanatics would be isolated. But this is the problem with so many of the secular leaders: They don't have faith--not in God, but also not in the Jewish people. They trust only in themselves, and this elitist attitude isolates them and creates the space for religious fanaticism to have its way.

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