Hopes for Middle East peace lie with Israel's Barak

Palestinian refugees, return of Golan Heights among issues he faces

July 04, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- The millennium could be the dawn of a new political era in the Middle East -- an independent Palestinian state, a Syrian flag flying again over the Golan Heights, a withdrawal of Israeli troops from South Lebanon, and an Israel at peace with all of its Arab neighbors.

A pipe dream perhaps, but the Israeli leader who would be at the center of it is Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak, a former commando intent on preserving Israel's security, a hawk on the issues central to a final peace deal with the Palestinians, and a political pragmatist with a military strategist's eye on how to get it all done.

As he prepares to take the oath of office this week, Barak faces an array of challenges whose outcomes could significantly change the Jewish state's position in the region and abroad in the 21st century.

Washington, Arab leaders and the Palestinians are counting on the 57-year-old retired general to revive the Middle East peace process, which collapsed in December under embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

A chance to end the state of war that exists between Israel and Syria seems possible for the first time since 1995, when talks broke down. Syrian President Hafez el Assad has publicly complimented Barak, signaling his willingness to broker a peace deal for the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

As Syria goes, so goes Lebanon. With the aging and ailing Assad eager to regain the lost Golan before he dies, the prospect of Israel's ending its protracted war in South Lebanon becomes plausible. Syria is the power broker in Lebanon and supports the Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrilla fighters.

As of now, the prime minister-elect has said little about the scope or timetable of either his foreign policy or domestic agenda.

For the past 45 days, the retired army chief of staff has painstakingly assembled a government that would return Israel to the road to peace. He refrained from making public statements on issues of the day. With his government now in place and solidly in the peace camp, Barak is getting down to the business of governing.

Following Rabin's example

He telephoned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and assured him he would follow in the footsteps of his political mentor, the late Yitzhak Rabin, an architect of the peace plan with the Palestinians, who was assassinated for implementing the Oslo peace accords.

Barak also indicated that his interest in ending Israel's war in South Lebanon would not take precedence over negotiating a final peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Barak, however, did make clear last week that he opposed granting the right of return to the 3.1 million Palestinian refugees of Israel's 1948 and 1967 wars. This is one of the critical issues that must be negotiated in final status talks with the Palestinians. And it is a potent one for Israelis who want Israel to retain its Jewish character.

Barak was responding to a comment by President Clinton last week suggesting that Palestinian refugees should be free to live wherever they want. Barak said that was unacceptable and requested clarification. The Clinton administration said U.S. policy that the status of the refugees is a matter for the final talks has not changed.

Praise from Syria

Among the most surprising developments in the region since Barak defeated hard-liner Netanyahu in the elections May 17 has been the attitude of Syria's Assad toward the prime minister-elect.

"Barak is strong and a real man. There is a clear change in Israel, and I think there is a genuine desire for peace there," Assad said in a conversation with his biographer Patrick Seale.

Barak returned the compliments in a similar interview: "I am genuinely excited to see whether there is a chance of achieving a pace of the brave. The only way to build a durable and comprehensive peace in the Middle East is by means of an agreement with Syria."

Assad's desire to settle the dispute over the Golan Heights, which Syria wants back, coincides with Barak's pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon by next year.

"The world in general was deeply disappointed in Netanyahu," Seale said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. "He was a nightmare for them, which finally ended. Whereas Barak is sending signals which arouse hope and expectation."

The first test of Barak's commitment to forging peace in the Middle East won't come in Damascus or any of the Arab capitals he plans to visit in the coming months. It will come in Jerusalem when he decides whether to implement the stalled land-for-security Wye peace agreement or to seek to postpone it in favor of beginning final status talks.

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