Barak's Tests

Incoming Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak couldn't have had a more poignant reminder of the difficult tasks ahead. Hours after he and Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad exchanged pleasantries in the press, rockets and bombs were falling on northern Israel and Beirut.

Mr. Barak has made it clear he considers peace with Syria - which subsumes peace with Lebanon - a priority. During the recent campaign in Israel, he promised to bring home the Israeli troops who now patrol southern Lebanon and lose 25 to 30 of their number each year.

The key to making good on that promise is Syria. Mr. Assad's terms for peace with Israel are simple: the return of all of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in 1967. That territory, like the others seized 32 years ago, has been settled by Israelis. They've established towns, farms, wineries, even a ski industry on the heights. But the Golan doesn't have the West Bank's deep ties to Jewish culture, and its Israeli inhabitants are not religious zealots.

The more than 17,000 Golan settlers gave most of their votes to Barak, and, by and large, they're resigned to having to leave their homes in the wake of a peace deal with Syria.

Assad's part of the bargain would be a security guarantee for the northern-Israel communities often hit by rockets Hizbullah fighters fire from over the border. Syria, with thousands of troops stationed in Lebanon, is assumed capable of pulling any string it chooses there.

The latest violence between Israel and Lebanon only underscores the need to resume peace talks. The speed with which he can restart the Syrian peace track will be a major test of Barak's leadership.

The other test, even more crucial, will be peace with the Palestinians. That will require a different kind of tact, and a shrewder grasp of the other side's needs, than the relatively straightforward demands represented by Assad, an absolute ruler firmly in control of his state.

Can Barak bring the ideologically diverse Cabinet members he's now assembling - possibly including, for example, Likud hard-liner Ariel Sharon - along on both peace tracks? How deeply does he want to bring them along?

The answer to that second question is what will distinguish him from his predecessor.

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