Barak Launches International Peace Blitz

After welding together a broad coalition with some noticeably weak joints, Israel's new Prime Minister Ehud Barak ventured out in July on his first diplomatic excursion aimed at propelling the Arab-Israeli peace process from out of its doldrums. By the time his tour was complete, Barak's biggest success appeared to be a developing friendship with US President Bill Clinton, while his most questionable move was fixing a 15 month deadline for making peace.

As the coalition fell into place, Clinton was hosting Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to compare notes on the new Israeli leader. At a joint press conference, areas of agreement, as well as some discord, emerged. Clinton continued to applaud Barak while criticizing "provocative settlement actions." However, Mubarak defied US wishes by refusing to drop support for a UN-mandated conference slated for mid-July expected to condemn Israeli settlement activity as violating the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Clinton eschewed any unilateral actions -- even by the US - that might jeopardize peace efforts, in apparent reference to his own use of a presidential waiver to postpone moving the US embassy to Jerusalem on "national security" grounds. He also declined to discuss new "ideas" he felt were needed in peacemaking until after he met with Barak.

But minutes later, when a reporter tried to connect the return of Kosovo refugees to the Palestinian refugee problem, Clinton responded that he would "like it" if Palestinians "felt free and were free to live wherever they like." Whether Palestinian refugees returned would depend, he said, on the nature of a final settlement and on "how long they've been away and whether they wish to go home."

State Department officials immediately sought to reassure Israel that Clinton's impromptu remarks did not represent a change in policy on the controversial "right of return." But many Israelis demanded a clarification from the President himself. A Barak spokesperson said the remarks were "unacceptable," adding "it would have been appropriate for the administration to clarify and correct it."

Before embarking, Barak delivered a wide-ranging Knesset speech, promising to pursue the Palestinian and Syrian tracks simultaneously. "The supreme goal of this government will be to bring peace and security to the people of Israel, while maintaining the fundamental interests of Israel... I know not only the suffering of my people. I know also the suffering of the Palestinian people. I want to put an end to the suffering ..."

Barak's first port-of-call was Alexandria, Egypt, where he hoped to build relations with an old acquaintance, Mubarak. Days earlier, when newly-appointed Minister for Regional Development Shimon Peres pitched him some bilateral economic proposals, Mubarak said Egypt would not make any goodwill gestures to Israel before real progress is made in the peace process. Then, on the eve of Barak's visit, Egypt published three demands: immediate implementation of the Wye Accords, a freeze on settlement activity, and simultaneous pursuit of both the Palestinian and Syrian peace negotiations, with priority given to the Palestinians.

Mubarak has been Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's closest Arab supporter of late, and the two reportedly agreed on a unified front, especially after Barak indicated he favors absorbing at least the third Wye withdrawal into final-status negotiations. Barak wanted to raise his Wye modifications with Mubarak and Arafat in hopes of avoiding early coalition troubles with pro-settlement partners.

In the first meeting between Israeli and PA leaders in seven months, Barak then huddled with Arafat at the Erez checkpoint. Afterwards, he said Israel would honor all signed agreements, including the Wye Memorandum, but hinted again that he would like to find a way of combining remaining interim redeployments with final-status talks, which will tackle such difficult issues as borders, settlements, Jerusalem, and the "right of return."

Although the two men exchanged gifts and pleasantries - Arafat called Barak "my dear friend and partner" - the Israeli made it clear he did not envisage a smooth road ahead. "I have no illusions, and I believe the Chairman has no illusions, that we are going into tough, long negotiations with many ups and downs and crises," he said.

Arafat called settlement expansion "illegal and destructive to the peace process... For the sake of peace, I call upon the Israeli government to stop it immediately." Barak replied "We will not establish any new settlements," but added "Nor we will dismantle any at this stage." Barak also made it clear his government would not tolerate terrorism, to which Arafat responded: "We will continue to express our lack of tolerance for violence and terror, whether the terror is committed by Israelis or Palestinians."

Barak then met with Jordan's King Abdullah in Aqaba, before heading off on a six-day visit to the US. He deemed the decision to call on Arab leaders first an important gesture, especially for Arafat, who had grown anxious recently over the unusually friendly overtures between Barak and Syrian President Hafez el-Assad.

The Clinton team went out of its way to ensure a warm Washington reception for the man they helped put in office. Many cited Clinton's quest to salvage his presidential legacy as the motivation for his determined focus on Middle East peacemaking. And although Barak's visit was overshadowed by the tragic disappearance of a plane piloted by John F. Kennedy Jr. off Martha's Vineyard, both leaders appeared extremely relaxed together.

With plans for peace in hand, Barak hoped to secure American approval for his proposed steps to reach a comprehensive peace "between Israel and all its Arab neighbors," while asking the US to assume a reduced role in future talks. "As Israel again walks bravely down the path of peace, America will walk with you," Clinton assured Barak, who responded: "I am determined to bring about change and renewal... [and] to inject new momentum into the peace process."

The two leaders met at length on several occasions, with Barak using detailed maps he had brought along to outline his ideas for reshaping the region. Barak aides indicated he was eager to present his ideas personally to Clinton in order to arrive at a joint strategy for advancing the peace process. Barak reportedly hopes that U.S. policy will be dictated by the president to his administration officials, and not vice versa. He also wants the US to step back to some extent from direct involvement in the peace process. Clinton nodded agreement as Barak pointed out "the US can contribute to the process more as a facilitator than as a kind of policemen, judge, and arbitrator all at the same time."

A White House source said the US is inclined to accept Barak's ideas about modifying the Wye implementation schedule, in the absence of an outright Palestinian rejection of the suggestion. At a joint press conference, Barak repeated his stand that, while Israel abides by international agreements, he nonetheless sees "a need to combine the implementation of Wye with moving forward with the final-status agreements."

He also made it clear the return of Palestinian refugees to the areas they left when Israel became a state was unacceptable; they should be helped to resettle in the surrounding Arab countries where they have lived for decades.

Barak conceded Israel would probably have to relinquish the strategic Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace with Syria, and expressed hopes to meet with President Assad in the near future. Clinton congratulated Barak for his efforts to "widen the circle of peace," and encouraged Assad to take advantage of this "golden opportunity.

Barak concluded his first journey into diplomacy by voicing hope for breakthroughs with both the Palestinians and Syrians "within 15 months," a time frame obviously geared to Clinton's remaining term in office. As a result, Israeli commentators worried Barak had unnecessarily restricted himself and revealed his hand too much to the Arabs.

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