A Short Courtship

World Leaders Anxiously Await Installment of PM Barak

Most Western and Arab leaders initially welcomed Ehud Barak's recent rise to power in Israel, but not everyone was willing to give him time to savour victory. Even as his supporters celebrated in the streets of Tel Aviv on the night of May 17th, Hizb'Allah greeted Barak with at least 25 Katyusha rockets launched into the Galilee. In the harsh realities of the Middle East, political honeymoons can be short-lived.

In many capitals, the loudest cheering was kept behind closed doors, and reflected satisfaction over Binyamin Netahyahu's loss as much as enthusiasm for Barak. Heads of state in Washington, London and Berlin had added reason for elation, as his triumph was orchestrated by their very own cabal of American campaign advisers. US President Bill Clinton summed up their consensus view: Barak seems inclined towards a "vigorous pursuit" of peace.

Jordan's King Abdullah expressed confidence Barak was "the type of man to take Israel into the next stage of - a new phase of - peace and stability in our region." Even Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrzi seemed resigned to the new reality, assuring his country would not stand in the way of diplomatic initiatives.

Hizb'Allah was joined by other dissenters, to be sure. Hamas sheikh Ahmed Yassin was not impressed: "Both Labour and the Likud want to steal the Palestinians' land and their right to an independent state." Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss agreed: "There is no difference between Barak and Netanyahu."

For his part, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at first welcomed the Barak win, but suppressed public jubilation. Palestinian Authority figures generally were cautious with praise, waiting for Barak's government and policies to take shape. Indeed, One Israel's campaign emphasis on Barak's military record, including daring exploits against PLO terrorists, troubled the on-looking Palestinian audience. Most bitterly recalled Barak's mentor, Yitzhak Rabin - although eventually a man of peace - also was a tough soldier who ordered the "breaking of bones" during the intifada.

Eventually, a series of events combined to diminish Barak's lustre in Palestinian eyes. First, his "red lines" in final-status talks, restated in victory speeches, worried PA officials. These included vows Israel would not return to the pre-1967 borders, uproot most settlements, divide Jerusalem, or allow a Palestinian army.

Barak also included "pro-settlement" parties in coalition talks. In addition, media reports indicated Barak was keen to pursue the Syrian track, possibly at the expense of the Palestinian track. The final straw came as Barak remained silent when the caretaker Likud government expanded the municipal boundaries of Ma'aleh Adumim to the city limits of Jerusalem.

Palestinian reaction to the latter move was scathing, as Arafat's Authority decided to stage several "Days of Rage" to protest settlement activity. Although response in the Palestinian street was tepid, enough violence flared to remind Barak the settlement issue could have "explosive" repercussions in future.

The PA made clear its firm preconditions for entering final-status talks with the new government: full implementation of the Wye Memorandum withdrawals and a complete freeze on settlement activity. "During its campaign, the Labor Party said funds would be for schools, not settlements," said PLO official Faisal Husseini. "Barak must stop all settlements, otherwise there won't be peace."

The chief objection to Oslo among Palestinians is the fact settlement growth was allowed to continue during the interim phase, and they want a halt during final status talks. The PA showed firm resolve on the issue by ordering Palestinians not to work in settlements. The edict was being enforced in Gaza, and is to be imposed throughout PA areas. Egypt appears squarely behind the PA position, which likely will be endorsed at a UN forum in Geneva in July.

Since his victory, Barak has been preoccupied with coalition talks and has declined to relate publicly to diplomatic developments until he assumes office. But he has made remarks supportive of settlements. He also quietly sent envoys to Washington to discuss skipping the interim stages of Wye and going straight to final-status talks. The idea was received coolly. Barak also outlined plans for simultaneously resuming stalled talks with Syria, plus withdrawing from Lebanon within one year.

Watching these developments, Arafat made frantic efforts to convene a summit with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to present Barak with a united front, but Syria stymied the move. Arafat sought the "Summit of Five" out of concern Barak may stress talks with Syria ahead of the Palestinians. As if confirming Arafat's fears, Clinton told Syrian president Hafez Assad recently he would personally be involved in reviving Syrian-Israeli peace talks after Barak forms his government.

To make matters worse, the most glowing and unprecedented praise for Barak then came from Assad himself. In an interview with his select biographer Patrick Seale published in the Arabic paper Al Hayat, Assad called Barak "a strong and honest man," adding that with Barak "there is a real desire for peace." Most observers viewed this as an obvious overture to the new Israeli leader to pursue the Syrian track, largely ignored since the Rabin era.

Barak has yet to respond to Assad's warm assessment, but in a companion interview Seale quotes him as seeing Syria as the "cornerstone" of peace in the Middle East. "My policy is to strengthen the security of Israel by putting an end to the conflict with Syria," said Barak. The Seale transcripts have stirred the diplomatic waters, causing anxiety in Gaza.

As a result, Arafat now hopes an Arab League summit will head off a Syrian breakaway deal that leaves the Palestinians behind, just as Arafat's own secret Oslo deal in 1993 left Assad out in the cold.

The friendly tone from Damascus was tested after Hizb'Allah fired three heavy rounds of Katyushas into the Galilee on June 24, triggering the largest Israeli response in 3 years. Assad reined in his proxy militia and refrained from condemning Israel, the clearest signal yet of a pending Golan deal. Indeed, the whole world anxiously awaits the coronation of Ehud Barak.

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