New Israeli team, new peace hope

As the new Barak government takes office, Arab neighbors signal a

One of the first acts of Israel's Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak could not have been more symbolic. He bowed at the granite slabs and steady flame that mark the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, the warrior-turned-statesman who made peace with the Palestinians and Jordan.

Mr. Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier, was paying his respects to the general. But he says it is the title of peacemaker that he wants to inherit from his mentor.

Barak's assumption of power July 6 has already begun to break the logjams that have stalled Mideast peace since Rabin's death in November 1995.

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad has signaled he is ready for peace, and is in Moscow, apparently positioning himself for a new round of negotiations with Israel. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was in Washington last week, where he declared Barak's rise a "birth of a new hope" in Israel.

"[Barak] may not be the Messiah, but he's the best thing Israel's got," says Hirsh Goodman, the vice chairman of the Jerusalem Post. "Nobody on the political horizon at this point in time has a better chance of doing what he has got to get done."

The new prime minister pledged during his campaign to make peace his top priority. In the seven weeks since he defeated hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu - whose tenure saw the virtual collapse of the peace process - Barak has crafted a coalition government that runs the breadth of Israel's political spectrum.

Barak has vowed to pull Israeli troops out of Lebanon by making a deal with Syria - a deal that he knows would require handing back the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. He also says he embraces the land-for-peace formula laid out in the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians. A first confidence-building step could be for Israel's new government to hand over 13 percent of the West Bank as required by the October 1998 Wye agreement, signed but then suspended by Mr. Netanyahu.

In the 50-year existence of the Jewish state, warriors have far outnumbered peacemakers, and to be successful at both is rare indeed. But Barak enters office with a strong mandate to make peace, and a glowing military career that signals to security-conscious Israelis that he won't sell the shop to make a deal.

"We received the responsibility to lead the country to peace and security," Barak told his Labor Party on July 5. "There is no goal in my opinion more central than this one-to strengthen Israel's security by ending the 100-year conflict in the Middle East."

But Barak begins his leading role at a time when Israelis are divided among themselves along several fault lines: secular vs. ultra-orthodox Jews; Israelis with European roots against those with Mideast and North African ancestry. And despite Barak's commanding victory, debate still rages about the best way to pursue peace.

"We still have a big hurdle, and that is Ehud Barak," says one Israeli political analyst. "He's basically a hawk, and he's a very security-minded person. Somebody who has been in the army 35 years thinks differently than the rest of us. He has to be convinced personally that we are not compromising on Israel's security by one inch.

"Rabin passed the hurdle, but couldn't deliver the majority of Israelis," the analyst says.

Palestinians also will need convincing. The simple fact that Barak is not Netanyahu is not enough to win their support, says Ghassan Khatib, a professor and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, a Palestinian information service in east Jerusalem.

"The indications so far are not very encouraging," says Mr. Khatib. Barak's efforts to woo right-wing parties could mean "inflexibility" toward the Palestinian peace track, and the handing of key peace and Palestinian-related portfolios to hard-liners is "not very positive."

The coalition itself could prove problematic. It gives Barak a 75-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and Barak can count on the support of 10 more seats held by Arab-Israelis. Every member of the coalition has agreed to abide by the general outlines of Barak's policies.

But several of the seven coalition partners were also right-wing members of the Netanyahu regime, and have close ties to Jewish settlers who might be forced to give up their settlements in occupied territories in any Barak peace deal.

"Barak is committed to continuing in Rabin's footsteps," says Joseph Alpher, a strategic affairs specialist and the Jerusalem representative of the American Jewish Committee.

"It took some neat drafting to put together the coalition guidelines," says Mr. Alpher. "But that is easy compared with how the coalition is going to deal with the actual act of negotiating territorial concessions."

The Wye agreement would "render several settlements enclaves," and "that is liable to produce quite a coalition crisis in a short amount of time."

Some Palestinians fault continued settlement building. "The peace process for us is about ending occupation. And the settlement expansion is about consolidating the occupation," says Khatib.

Barak has also signalled other "red line" positions about Jerusalem, borders, and the return of refugees - all "final status" issues - that appear very close to Netanyahu's tough positions, and sound non-negotiable.

Barak has kept the defense portfolio for himself. And his appointment of the moderate David Levy as foreign minister indicates that Barak will orchestrate the peace moves, too. Mr. Levy held that job twice before, most recently resigning from the Netanyahu government because of the slow pace of peace moves.

"A lot depends on Barak himself, and not the power game inside the coalition," says Alon Liel, a professor of international relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"He will not move in Peres's rhythm, and also not as slow as Netanyahu moved. He will be somewhere in between," Mr. Liel says.

Barak has also improved his chances by creating a safety valve. Any peace deal he makes that would return the Golan Heights to Syria, or hand back large chunks of the West Bank to the Palestinians, will be voted upon in a referendum.

"This government is going to be making some very controversial decisions," says Alpher. "This mechanism can cushion these very heavy issues ... that will enable the country to pull together, without too much damage to the social fabric."

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