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News Analysis: Despite High Hopes, Don’t Expect New Mideast Treaties Any Time Soon

A new atmosphere of cordiality has descended on the Middle East since Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s victory in the Israeli elections in May.

But atmospherics aside, there is likely to be some tough bargaining ahead before Israel concludes any new treaties with its Arab neighbors.

Regional Arab leaders have given Barak two months to get his peace policies into shape.

This was the bottom line during Barak’s meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak last Friday, and the same message emerged from his conversation Sunday with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

After waiting patiently for Barak to form his coalition government, the Arab leaders are pointedly still not pressuring him now that he has taken over the reins of power.

Instead, they are smothering him with words of trust and friendship. Both Mubarak and Arafat publicly called him their “friend” and “partner.” Both spoke of their belief that “confidence” was being restored to their relationship with Israel following three years of deterioration under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And, taking their cue from recent statements made by Syrian President Hafez Assad, both stressed that Barak is a man of his word whose pledges can be relied on.

Assad, of course, has yet to meet with an Israeli leader. But his repeated public expressions of respect, even admiration, for Barak have heralded a new tone of optimism in much of the Arab world.

The mood is reminiscent of the tone of the late Premier Yitzhak Rabin’s tenure, when, after decades of being considered a diplomatic and economic pariah in the region, Israel began to build ties with several Middle Eastern countries.

There were ups and downs then, too, as the peace negotiations with the Palestinians and with the Syrians ebbed and flowed.

But the return of the Likud to power in 1996 signaled the start of a long and sustained downturn, with Israeli envoys and businessmen losing foothold after foothold in the Gulf states and North Africa.

Barak plans a meeting soon with King Hassan of Morocco to give new impetus to Israel’s return to regional integration. Hassan stolidly refused to see Netanyahu during the former Likud leader’s term of office.

A Syrian newspaper waxed optimistic over the weekend, predicting that peace treaties could be just weeks away if the new mood is mirrored by a similarly dramatic turnabout in substantive negotiations.

Israeli sources caution, however, against such runaway optimism. They predict long and hard bargaining, both with the Palestinians and with Syria.

They warn, too, that any agreements will probably provide for long periods of implementation during which both sides will be vigilantly monitoring the actions and intentions of the other.

The trick, say analysts, will be to retain the mood of amity even when the talks themselves enter into difficulties, as they undoubtedly will.

Barak is already deploying this tactic with Arafat in connection with the sensitive matter of linking the Wye accord reached last October with final- status negotiations.

The Palestinians are demanding that Israel immediately implement a second further redeployment from portions of the West Bank as called for in the Wye agreement. They then want to move to the third further redeployment, as prescribed in the original Oslo accords and reconfirmed at Wye.

They maintain that the Oslo timetable was set back during the Netanyahu years and should now be observed, albeit belatedly, without further delay.

Barak, for his part, is anxious not to squander his diplomatic energies and domestic political credit on these agreements, instead wanting to focus on the final-status talks — with a view, as he repeatedly proclaims, to bringing an end to the entire conflict.

Splitting their differences, at least rhetorically, the two leaders agreed Sunday that the third redeployment would be subsumed under the final-status negotiations.

How this is to happen remains vague — and could yet prove a major source of dispute. But for the moment, Barak and Arafat succeeded in rounding an awkward corner and preserving the new mood of trust.

If the substance of the negotiations comes anywhere close to meeting the high hopes currently sweeping the region, Barak may quickly find that his toughest challenges will be domestic rather than diplomatic.

He has promised to submit any peace treaties reached with the Palestinians or Syria to a national referendum.

But is the Israeli public really prepared to endorse a total or near-total withdrawal from the Golan Heights and the creation of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip?

These, after all, are the basic conditions for reaching such treaties.

Anxious not to create premature antagonism with potential political foes, Barak met Monday with leaders of the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, and also with leaders of the Golan settlements.

But while Barak intends the new government’s dialogue with these groups to be civilized and sympathetic, he can hardly delude himself that either of them will fall into line with his basic land-for-peace approach.

The question is whether Barak, out of domestic political considerations, will decide to prioritize one negotiating track at the expense of the other.

Barak repeatedly has sought to assure regional and world leaders that this is not his intention and that he is both determined and capable of advancing on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks simultaneously.

He makes this assurance despite the historical record of more than two decades of sporadic Israeli-Arab peacemaking that had Israeli governments — including that of Rabin — always preferring to focus on one front at a time.

Certainly it would be easier for Barak, at the head of his jigsaw puzzle coalition of seven parties, to concentrate on the Syrian-Lebanese track while leaving the religiously and emotionally fraught West Bank issue on the back burner.

But that could mean leaving the work of ending the Israeli-Arab conflict to another leader.

Barak says he plans to achieve the historic, comprehensive conclusion of the century-long conflict himself.

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