Barak comes to Washington

Peace process: Israel's new leader reinforces impression of him as man of destiny in a hurry.

July 21, 1999

THE FIRST visit to Washington by Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, did nothing to disabuse those who believe he was elected to cement Israel's peace with its neighbors. He encourages that impression and makes the most of it.

As it happens, Mr. Barak's rough 15-month timetable for completing peace agreements with the Palestinian Authority and with Syria fits within the remaining 18 months of Bill Clinton's presidency.

Mr. Barak is offering Mr. Clinton a chance to go down in history as the U.S. president who brought peace to the Middle East. Mr. Clinton can hardly refuse.

The danger lies in Congress, with some support in the country for the notion that the impeachment fight is still on and anything else is just part of it. Those who oppose or obstruct Mr. Clinton on any issue, may try to block promised resumption of economic assistance to Israel, cooperation in space and anything else Mr. Clinton may do.

Mr. Barak seeks peace as an old general and current defense minister committed to Israel's security and strength. His shopping list of fighter planes and proposals for strengthening U.S.-Israeli security cooperation fit that image and are meant to disarm hawkish critics.

Israelis and Palestinians no longer need U.S. mediation to talk. But Washington is crucial in any approach to Syria's dictator Hafez el Assad, who is sending voluminous signals that he wants to come in from the cold.

Syria would have to shut down the terrorists it maintains in Lebanon. Mr. Assad would expect to go off Washington's list of sponsors of terrorism and be rewarded with good standing in the community of nations. Any Syrian-Israeli peace agreement must be a Syrian-U.S. accord as well.

Mr. Barak has formed a broad-based government that may see some defections before this is over. He has upset Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, with a timetable seemingly different from that in the Wye Plantation Accord. Mr. Arafat is even more upset by hints from Damascus that Syria is telling terrorist groups to prepare to shut down. He would not want Syria to make peace before he does.

The practical difficulties for Israel and the Palestinians to overcome are daunting. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shut down the process. Mr. Barak is jump-starting it and displaying his commitment. He has raised expectations almost too high, but it is what the world has wanted.

Pub Date: 7/21/99

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