Amid air of relief, U.S. welcomes Barak

High hopes for peace as Israeli leader visits

July 15, 1999|By Mark Matthews and Ann LoLordo | Mark Matthews and Ann LoLordo,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton will welcome newly installed Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to the White House today in an atmosphere of almost palpable relief after three years of tension and distrust between American and Israeli leaders.

While braced for difficult times ahead, U.S. officials expect revived Israeli-Syrian negotiations, a much improved relationship with Palestinians and a restoration of trust between the president and the prime minister.

Briefing reporters late yesterday, a senior U.S. official demurred when asked to compare Barak with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud bloc leader who lost his re-election bid in May.

But then he went on to praise Barak in words that drew a sharp contrast with his predecessor. The new prime minister, he said pointedly, is careful, methodical, "absolutely true to his word" and a strategist.

Netanyahu has been widely characterized as reckless, unreliable and prone to acting day to day without any long-range plan. He openly courted Clinton's enemies on the Republican right, and roiled relations between the Clinton administration and conservatives among American Jews.

"Prime Minister Barak has started to create a new sense of possibility even with the meetings he's already had," the senior U.S. official said, citing the Israeli leader's visits this week to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Jordan's King Abdullah II.

In a three-hour, mostly one-on-one session today, Clinton will elicit Barak's plan for negotiations with Palestinians and with Syria and Lebanon -- and offer ideas of his own, a senior White House official said.

After a weekend spent brainstorming separately with aides, they will meet again Monday "with something that takes shape as a game plan for moving ahead," the official said.

In a return to U.S.-Israeli intimacy, the president and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will take Barak and his wife, Nava, to Camp David tonight for dinner and an overnight stay. On Sunday, Clinton will play host to the Baraks at a White House dinner for about 400 guests.

High expectations

Barak, a 57-year-old soldier-politician who refers to Clinton's friend, assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, as his mentor, comes here strengthened with a broad coalition, a popular mandate to make peace and widespread support in the American Jewish community.

Netanyahu, who struggled to stay in power atop an unruly right-wing coalition, had frozen implementation of the 1998 Wye River land-for-security peace accords with Palestinians, an agreement that Clinton had worked hard to achieve.

Some commentators fear that the optimism surrounding Barak is unrealistic.

"There's always a danger that expectations are too high, but we recognize there's a great opportunity here that shouldn't be lost," the White House official said.

The biggest change is the prospect of a breakthrough with archenemy Syrian President Hafez el Assad in which Israel returns most of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel seized from Syria during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Peace between the two countries would end the confrontation between Israel and most of its immediate neighbors. Since Syria controls Lebanon, it would also likely bring peace to Israel's northern border.

Assad, beset with health problems, hopes to pass a restored Syria to his son and likely successor, Bashar, and improve his standing with the United States, according to analysts here. In recent days, he has made what for him are extraordinarily accommodating statements about Barak.

Israelis want the Americans to play a key role in restarting talks with Syria, which broke off in 1996 when Assad refused to condemn anti-Israeli terrorism.

Barak wants to pursue these talks while at the same time tackling the core of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the struggle with Pales- tinians over contested holy land.

But here the peace trail is littered with land mines, according to James Zogby, head of the Arab-American Institute. These include more than 20 new encampments erected by Jewish settlers since the Wye accords and new construction in and near Arab East Jerusalem.

Barak has revived a Netanyahu proposal of moving swiftly to final talks with Palestinians without first completing the withdrawals called for in the Oslo accords of 1993 and the Wye agreements.

This presumably would let Israel use territory as a bargaining chip in "final status" negotiations over the most difficult issues, including borders, settlements, the rights of Palestinian refugees, sovereignty over Jerusalem and the question of Palestinian statehood.

The White House official sounded willing to go along with this, noting that the point of the Wye accords was to move the sides toward final status, but Palestinians are wary.

"If Mr. Barak is about to suggest officially he wants to freeze Wye, believe me, a strong Palestinian delegation will jump the next morning to Washington," chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told reporters this week.

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