What role US will play in a changed Israel

In meeting today, Barak may signal desire for a renewed - yet distant - friendship.

For the Clinton administration's diplomatic team that once shuttled endlessly back and forth to the Middle East during the peace process, it once again may be time to pack a bag.

Icy US-Israeli relations - created during the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu - are thawing as Washington enthusiastically welcomes new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and his early and aggressive peace overtures.

Still unknown, however, is how far Prime Minister Barak is willing to go in implementing last October's Wye River peace accords - and what his timetable is. And perhaps most important to Washington is the level of involvement he'll allow the US to play in that larger process.

Nevertheless, there is much anticipation among White House officials over the renewal of goodwill and the revival of a relationship not seen since the era of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

"There are expectations on all sides that there is the opportunity for progress," says National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley. "You'll see a game plan emerge as to where and how fast everyone thinks progress can be made."

As Barak and President Clinton sit down for a three-hour Oval Office meeting today and another on Monday, attention is focused on Barak's blueprint for implementing the provisions of the Wye accord.

A reserved friendship

In interviews before his departure for the US, Barak spoke of the importance of reestablishing the friendship once enjoyed between the two countries. The resumption of trust and intimacy, he said, is a priority.

While acknowledging the importance of the US role, and signaling his desire for renewed friendship, Barak has also hinted at a reduced involvement for America. Specifically, he sees as problematic the role the CIA is playing in mediating security disputes between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

But keeping the United States at a friendly arm's length should not be misinterpreted and will be the key to any success, say observers.

"[Barak] has to distance himself a little bit in order to be convincing. He can't be seen as an agent of the US," says Andrew Hess at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

Barak's first step is to "come out of these initial meetings with a sense of producing a solution that involves the PLO and [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat," says Mr. Hess. The second step, he adds, is an Israeli-initiated path to peace, without as much US involvement.

While Washington is encouraged by movement toward "what everyone recognizes is the ultimate finish line," Mr. Crowley says, it is the intangibles of diplomacy - the human interaction among the participants - that are expected to be the focus of today's meeting.

The improved chemistry and friendship between Barak and Mr. Clinton may actually have been spurred by the recent tenuous US-Israeli relationship.

"The Netanyahu period is going to have been a positive experience in the sense that it set such a negative tone ... between Israel and the US," says Graham Fuller, consultant at the Rand Corp. in Washington. So much so, he adds, that it "has increased the determination that things have to work."

Renewed focus

While it is still unclear exactly how the overall US diplomatic mission will change, the State Department is already indicating Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is likely to travel to the region in August.

State Department spokesman James Rubin says a renewed focus on the process has Ms. Albright reordering priorities.

"I know the secretary has already made a decision that she's prepared to spend a substantial amount of her time working on the Middle East peace process in the coming months," Mr. Rubin says.

Within the influential American Jewish community, meanwhile, there is broad political support for the peace process and Barak.

A poll released yesterday by the Israeli Policy Forum finds 63 percent within the community have a favorable opinion of Barak. An even higher number, 88 percent were found to support the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The administration is also keen to see significant progress in the process before Clinton's time in office expires.

"As Clinton looks toward the end of his presidency, he would sure like to have a diplomatic victory in the Middle East that would add to his legacy," says Michael Hudson, acting director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

Sticking points

Long-term optimism and expectations for real progress are also tempered by the difficult final issues, including the status of Jerusalem and borders that stand in the way of a lasting peace with Palestinians.

"Atmosphere is important but it will only get you so far," says Mr. Hudson. "It's still hard to see how you square a circle with Jerusalem, [Palestinian] refugees, cutting back Israeli settlements [in the West Bank], and how you solve boundaries."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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