Barak's fast-break diplomacy

Israeli leader, arriving in US today, may be more hard-line than

Since taking office, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has proceeded at a bullet-train pace to revitalize peace in the Middle East, visiting three major Arab leaders in only a few days' time. But now, as his peace train makes a week-long stop in Washington, analysts are warning of obstacles ahead on the tracks (US role in Israel, page 2).

"The great danger is that the euphoria of [Mr. Barak's] election could lead very quickly to some disappointment," says Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "The gaps that may exist between his notion of what it takes to solve the 'final status' issues and the Palestinian 'red lines' [nonnegotiable positions], I suspect, will turn out to be rather serious."

As a result, "a kind of backlash may set in very quickly," Mr. Siegman says. "What is important is that this first shock not lead to disillusionment."

Barak has vowed to resuscitate the stalled peace talks with both the Palestinians and Syria. He has challenged Arabs to join him in making a "peace of the brave" with Israel and end a century of conflict. He has already met with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Jordan's King Abdullah and Turkish President Suleyman Demirel.

A key confidence-building measure, insisted upon by Mr. Arafat and the Americans, will be Israel's withdrawal from 13 percent of the West Bank, as agreed upon last October at Wye River, Maryland, but shelved by Barak's hard-line predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak has stated he is willing to carry out the Wye accord, possibly with some adjustments.

But there are some constraints. One is that Washington's traditional role as facilitator in this case is likely to be limited to a year, after which the US presidential election season gets under way and pressure on Israel becomes a political liability. Barak himself has said in interviews that he wants Washington's role in Mideast peacemaking to be scaled back from the detail-oriented approach it took when Mr. Netanyahu was in office.

During this visit to Washington, however, Barak is scheduled to meet with Clinton several times.

Another constraint on peacemaking is the aging of the main Arab actors, Arafat and Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

Barak has already laid down Israel's own "red lines," which many Palestinians refer to as the "three nos": no division of sovereignty over Jerusalem, no return to the borders of land before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and no dismantling Jewish settlements on occupied territory.

These views are not altogether different from Netanyahu's and have proved to be show-stoppers in the past.

"The Palestinians have to come to grips with their unrealistic expectations of what's possible and what Israel is willing to give in a time frame," says Gerald Steinberg of the Besa Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.

Mr. Steinberg emphasizes the unlikelihood in the next few years of a Palestinian state that includes 90 percent of West Bank land, a final-status agreement, and a sovereignty role for Palestinians in Jerusalem. "Barak has his own strategy that will not give them those concessions, and the Israeli public will not approve them at this stage," he says. "After all the violence and terrorism, Israelis are going to proceed cautiously, step by step."

Still, many argue that without the incentive of a viable Palestinian state as the recognized endgame - which Mr. Netanyahu refused to consider but Barak is speaking more openly about - Palestinians will have little motivation.

"You have to break the process down into three elements: style, strategy and substance," says Rami Khouri, a Jordanian political analyst. "We're really dealing with the style right now, with the back-slapping and praising each other. But the strategy that both sides are employing is beginning to come clear: They are both going to be making certain sacrifices."

Overexuberance is "clearly a danger," Mr. Khouri says. "That's why people on the Arab side have been guarded in expressing their optimism. There is a strong expectation of progress, and my guess is it will happen, but not as fast as people want."

Some in the Arab world are raising red flags. "Barak is no peacenik. His smooth-sounding rhetoric should not deceive," wrote columnist George Hishmeh, from Washington, in the Amman-based Jordan Times. "His blood-stained record (many prominent Palestinians were killed on his watch [as Israel's military chief of staff]), and even his most recent utterances betray a different mettle than some have been imagining during these heady days after the downfall of Netanyahu."

Barak has asked Israelis and Arabs together to accept his past, and to see him as a peacemaker. Presenting his government before the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, on July 6, Barak said: "As one whose only clothes, for decades, were olive-drab uniforms, I tell you today that, in the words of the Poet Hillel, 'We - the gray soldiers, whose hands are blackened with war, whose nostrils reek with death, whose throats are hoarse - we cry love to inside your souls.'"

After meeting Arafat, Barak said that there were "no illusions" on either side about the difficult path ahead. The proof of Barak's peace strategy, though, will be what he brings to the negotiating table. In the past, when asked privately whether his map of a future Palestinian state differed from Netanyahu's patchwork plan, Barak said no.

"But the difference is that I will deliver the map, and Netanyahu will not," the Council on Foreign Relations' Siegman recalls Barak as saying. "Now if that is still his position, and it may very well be, with some minor adjustments, then I think we're in for a very rough time.

"[Barak's] done all the right things, but they are right only if they are in anticipation of a serious willingness to make the necessary compromises to close the deal," Siegman adds. "But if [he is] dealing with Netanyahu's map, then doing all these right things is irrelevant because the process will break down once you deal with the hard issues."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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