Barak starts peace push

New prime minister extends olive branch to Arab neighbors

`Historic duty'

For Israeli leader, positive reactions from Arafat, Syria

July 07, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, was sworn into office yesterday and set out a firm course to get the Jewish state back on the road to peace after a three-year detour engineered by his hard-line predecessor.

Barak, a highly decorated commando and retired army chief of staff, outlined the goals of his government -- peace agreements with the Palestinians and Syria, a withdrawal of Israeli troops from South Lebanon, a secure northern border, a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty for "eternity." He then appealed to Arabs -- those who have made peace with Israel and those who have not -- to seize the opportunity for a "peace of the brave."

Barak's campaign pledge to revive the stalled Middle East peace process led to his May 17 victory over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rather than fight the new government as the leader of the opposition Likud bloc, Netanyahu resigned his parliamentary seat and will return to private life.

The Knesset, Israel's parliament, voted 75-29 to approve Barak's government, a group of Labor Party loyalists, political allies and coalition partners that include the ultra-religious and secular liberals. The Arab members of parliament abstained in protest because Barak has not given an Israeli Arab a prominent position in his government even though the country's 1 million Arab citizens voted overwhelmingly for Barak.

To Israel's voters, Barak pledged that neither the security of Israel nor its essential interests would be compromised in the pursuit of peace.

To Israel's Arab neighbors, Barakextended his hand in friendship and acknowledged that the Jewish state alone could not achieve peace in the region.

"There is a historic duty to take advantage of the window of opportunity that has been open for us to bring long-term peace and security to Israel," Barak said in his parliamentary speech that was broadcast nationwide on Israel Radio. "A long-term and stable peace will only be if it rests at the same time on four pillars -- Egypt, Jordan, Syria-Lebanon, and of course, the Palestinians. As long as the peace is not based on these four pillars it will remain incomplete and unstable."

But the 57-year-old prime minister added, "The Arab states ought to know only a strong Israel that is sure of itself can bring about peace, a secure peace."

Barak enters office with a broad-based government that holds 75 seats in the Knesset, giving him the widest ruling majority of any recent prime minister.

His predecessor, Netanyahu, and his mentor, the late Yitzhak Rabin, governed with the slimmest of vote margins.

"This is an extremely strong government," said political analyst Barry Rubin. "How many Knesset seats does the government control? Seventy-five. They can count on 18 more and there's only 27 in the opposition.

"That's amazing. Ben Gurion didn't have that in '48," he said, referring to Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion.

During his campaign, Barak sought to unify a country polarized by ethnic animosity and religious allegiance as much as it was apprehensive about the peace process.

"I know we have thousands of problems on the public agenda," Barak said. "[But] nothing is more important in my view than that supreme mission putting an end to the 100-year conflict in the Middle East."

Barak's government may be operating from a position of strength, but his goals are not all compatible with those of the Arabs.

For example, Barak's position that Jerusalem is Israel's legitimate, unified capital, a position shared by most Israelis, conflicts with Palestinians' expectations. They want Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.

But the new prime minister, who carried out his coalition negotiations like a military strategist, appears intent in his mission.

"The government is determined to use every effort to do everything that is needed for security and to reach peace and prevent war," Barak said.

Barak suggested that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan "could fill an essential role in creating the dynamics, atmosphere and trust that are so needed to make peace."

To the Palestinians, Barak acknowledged the "heavy suffering" caused by the "bitter dispute between us." But he asserted, "There's no sense now in taking stock of historical mistakes we cannot change the past. We can only improve the future."

"My aim and wish is to put an end to violence and to suffering and to work with the elected Palestinian leadership headed by Chairman Yasser Arafat in partnership and dignity," Barak said.

The Palestinians, who are relying on Barak to resume the peace process, have their own expectations of the new prime minister. They want him to implement the land-for-security arrangements frozen by Netanyahu, and to stop the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But last night, Arafat sought only to encourage Barak.

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