BOSTON — New Israeli Premier Ehud Barak, who is in Washington now, has a reputation as "someone who can think outside the box." The "box" he now has an unprecedented chance to think - and act - outside of is the view that Israel can never reach a decent peace with the Arab world.
President Clinton - and all other US politicians - should give Mr. Barak every encouragement to achieve such a peace.
During visits this month to Israel, the Palestinian areas, Jordan, and Lebanon - and interviews with Syrian negotiators - I found numerous signs that the circle of peace among Arabs and Israelis can now be completed.
First, with the resounding May election defeat of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who repeatedly stonewalled on key peace issues, Israelis showed they're ready for a new approach.
The high-level attention Barak has given to peacemaking during his first days in office has stirred huge interest among Arabs - and surprisingly little criticism in Israel. He should be encouraged to maintain this momentum and to transform Israelis' views of what is possible before the peace doubters have time to reorganize.
Second, hopes for peace among many in the Arab world, including many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and Lebanese of many stripes, seem remarkably durable. As parting shots, Mr. Netanyahu sanctioned the establishment of 42 Jewish settlements on West-Bank hills and ordered air raids against Lebanon. Yet, Palestinian and Lebanese hopes for peace persist.
Third, the policy elites in all relevant countries understand the parameters of what their respective peace agreements will involve. The Syrian-Israeli peace talks between 1992 and 1996 established that Israel would need to withdraw from the Golan Heights - and that it could find a way to do this, provided that Syria agree to broad demilitarization, a US-led troop presence, and full normalization of political and economic relations with Israel. In those talks, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad showed himself willing to agree to such terms. Now, he has shown himself even more eager to engage with Barak on this basis.
On the Lebanese front, there is already broad recognition in Israel that it needs to withdraw troops it has kept in Lebanon since 1978. The major question has been how to do this without the Hizbullah militia "chasing" them back inside Israel. Now, many Lebanese analysts seem confident that, in the context of an Israeli withdrawal, Hizbullah will follow the many other Lebanese militias that have turned into purely political movements. These analysts note that Hizbullah has muted earlier calls for the "liberation of Jerusalem" - and also that, if Syria is satisfied with its own deal with Israel, it can use its strong influence in Lebanon to help enforce peace.
On the Palestinian track, the parameters of a durable agreement already seem clear - even if the parties themselves only partially recognize this. The deal here would involve the establishment of a Palestinian political entity in the West Bank and Gaza strong enough to withstand the criticisms of Palestinian maximalists, yet weak enough not to threaten Israeli security. It should therefore be a state with a territorial base able to support present Palestinian residents plus substantial numbers of longtime Palestinian refugees - particularly the hard-pressed refugees in Lebanon. This state should be one that actively embraces demilitarization and focuses resources on human and economic development. It should forge nonrestrictive economic relations with Israel and other neighbors. Also, Washington needs to help Israelis and Palestinians recognize each other's strong concerns for Jerusalem.
Beyond these tracks, most other Arab states have also signaled that - if Israel reaches reasonable agreements with immediate neighbors - they, too, would be ready to give it both peace and recognition.
Barak has come along just in time. In coming years, key Arab countries will see generational changes in their top leaders. How much better if these changes can occur in the context of an already-existing Arab-Israeli peace.
*Helena Cobban, a Virginia-based foreign affairs writer, is traveling in the Middle East.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society