The personal relations of peace
For President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Barak, first step inMideast progress may be forging a friendship.
WASHINGTON — Emerging from the diplomatic whirlwind of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's current trip to the United States is at least one apparent disappointment.
The Israeli leader, President Clinton has learned, does not golf.
That shortcoming aside, aides say, the two men are forging a genuine friendship that may infuse the Mideast peace process with a fresh promise not felt since 1993, when Mr. Clinton presided over a historic handshake between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and the late Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin.
Since then, US-Israeli relations have deteriorated badly - along with prospects for peace. Thus, to many analysts, creating a bond between Clinton and the newly elected Mr. Barak is as important a goal for this trip as are any of the specific issues still to be resolved.
"They are genuinely hitting it off," says a senior administration official, noting that the president quietly invited Barak into the most private parts of the White House, showing him family photos and some of the rare books he collects.
The effusive reception is intended to move US-Israeli relations to firmer ground for negotiations with Israel's Arab neighbors, as well as to give Clinton a legacy of progress toward lasting peace in the Middle East.
Last week, Barak was invited to visit Camp David, the site of the historic accords reached between Israel and Egypt during the Carter years. "This is a major symbolic gesture to have your first meeting and [then] be whisked off to Camp David," says Richard Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Barak has also met with the administration's national security team - a relationship he fostered when serving under Mr. Rabin. "Clinton seems to regard Barak as son and heir of Rabin," says Mr. Murphy.
At a White House dinner in his honor, Barak was toasted for his efforts to rejuvenate a peace process that had faded during the tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The relationship between American presidents and Israeli leaders, while always mindful of the larger importance, have often been tumultuous. Tensions between Clinton and Mr. Netanyahu became so severe, they were described as poisonous.
Similarly, affairs between President Bush and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir became so strained that US loan guarantees were put on hold. Many believe Mr. Shamir's relationship with Washington contributed to his political downfall.
During the Carter years, when the hard-fought Camp David accords were forged between Israel and Egypt, personality and friendship played key roles. President Carter ordered psychological profiles of Israeli leader Menachem Begin and Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, believing a knowledge of the personalities involved was vital to success.
But on a human level, Mr. Carter was profoundly moved by his friendship with Mr. Sadat. So much so that after a White House meeting, he brought Sadat into his private residence and woke up his young daughter, Amy, so he could introduce the two. "I felt a strange rapport with that man that has been almost unequaled in my life," Carter told a group last fall, pointing out that the friendship often provided the cohesion needed to keep the leaders at the table.
Carter did not share the same closeness with Mr. Begin. "Despite not getting along with Begin, Carter thought he was stubborn but had respect for him," says Shibley Telhami at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
As Camp David illustrated, a strong friendship can make all the difference in tenuous negotiations. "It can make it easier to take you over the inevitable period of tensions," says Herbert Kelman at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. "It helps, but won't necessarily make the difference between yes and no in a negotiation."
Others suggest Barak should take full advantage of the good press and get to know as many Washington officials as possible.
"Barak has to be careful not to focus all of this relationship with the US on the presidency," says Zoe Danon Gedal at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "There are reports he will ask for a tremendous amount of assistance. To get that, he'll need a good relationship with the congressional leadership."
At a joint news conference today, the two leaders are expected to announce renewed military cooperation, more than $40 million for the Arrow antimissile system, and solid support for the $3 billion in economic aid for Israel.
The negative side of warming US-Israeli relations is its effect among Palestinians. Observers warn it could undermine their ability to extract concessions in the bargaining process.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society