Behind the Headlines: Israel’s Prime Minister Barak Reveals Personality and Priorities
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Behind the Headlines: Israel’s Prime Minister Barak Reveals Personality and Priorities

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As Israel’s new prime minister introduced himself to the American people during his first official visit to the United States, he revealed much about his personality, his policies and his priorities.

To official Washington and to ordinary citizens, to organized Jewry and to the Jewish grass roots, Ehud Barak’s main message this week and last was the same: obtaining peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors is his top priority.

That message was conveyed not only by his words, but by his actions. Barak’s meetings with government officials and Jewish organizational leaders all focused on the issue as he sought support for his initiatives.

He studiously avoided the religious pluralism minefield, opting to forgo any visit to a New York-area synagogue, where he spent Shabbat, rather than have to choose which kind of synagogue to attend.

Indeed, during his visit, he made his clearest statements to date that he is committed to maintaining the religious status quo, which gives the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate control over religious affairs as well as marriages, conversions and burials.

The issue has been a source of major concern for many Reform and Conservative Jews in America, who seek official recognition of their institutions and representatives in Israel.

Initial optimism among these groups that Barak would seek to change the status quo dissipated after he brought the powerful fervently Orthodox Shas Party into his governing coalition.

Shas, as well as other Orthodox parties, believe that Israel should maintain the status quo so as not to undermine the Jewish character of the state.

Barak indicated that only after Israel solves its conflict with its Arab neighbors can Israeli society engage in the difficult dialogue necessary to find a balance between the role of religion and the rights of individuals.

But he also hinted that he believes the Israeli Supreme Court, where the Reform and Conservative movements have waged — and in some cases won — their battles for recognition, should continue to address these concerns.

Barak’s message that achieving peace tops his agenda was not a surprise.

It had become clear when he formed his broad-based government earlier this month, including Shas, that his goal was to have as much Israeli support as possible for moving forward with the long-stalled peace process.

What was new were the specifics he laid out in meetings with President Clinton and other top policy-makers that he hoped to reach a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon within 15 months.

While he revealed few details of the negotiating strategy he intends to pursue, he did say repeatedly that any agreement he signs with the Palestinians will enable most settlers in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip to remain in place.

Throughout his visit, which included meetings at the White House, Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, the former chief of staff of Israel’s armed forces exuded a certain confidence when talking about pursuing peace.

His mantra, repeated throughout his visit, seemed to be: “Just as I was not afraid to fight wars; I am not afraid to make peace.”

He also injected a certain poignancy as he conveyed his mission.

In his speech at a White House dinner in his honor Sunday night, Barak said that as a military man, “I can tell you that there have never been words or images that truly convey the horrors of the battlefield.”

“As prime minister and minister of defense,” he said, “I pray that the time will never come when I have to give the order to go to war.”

He said his “hardest moments” came “at the door of a fallen soldier’s family, on the day he was lost. It is the memory of those moments which I carry with me here this evening.”

Toasting Clinton, the premier said, “We know that we can count on you and the American people as we cross a great historic divide and extend a hand of friendship to our neighbors.”

In a bid to reassure those who worry about Israel’s security, he has altered the theme that characterized the reign of his mentor, the late Yitzhak Rabin.

Instead of talking about ensuring Israel’s security, he seems to take pains to stress that he is determined to strengthen Israel by ending the conflict with its Arab neighbors.

He says repeatedly that he will not sign any agreement that he doesn’t believe will make Israel stronger.

Still, despite the confidence of his convictions, Barak appeared a man not yet used to the public spotlight.

His English, though good, does not come close to that of his predecessor, the American-educated Benjamin Netanyahu.

He often finds himself struggling to find the right words to express his thoughts in English. For this reason, he kept his media appearances to a minimum.

The prime minister also conveyed during his visit some important messages about his relations with American Jews.

He stressed the need for an Israeli-Diaspora partnership, both when it comes to promoting U.S.-Israeli relations and to strengthening Jewish peoplehood, education and aliyah.

But it was not clear how much energy he intends to expend in developing those relations.

He stirred up some pre-visit controversy as he sought to limit his meetings with Jewish officials.

In the end, a meeting Sunday with the umbrella group, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, included representatives from across the political and religious spectrum.

But he gave equal time to the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that promotes the peace process and has close ties to the Barak camp, suggesting that he intends to keep that group firmly in the loop as he pursues his agenda.

The prime minister also broached the issue of Jonathan Pollard, the convicted navy analyst serving a life sentence for spying for Israel.

According to a senior Clinton adminstration official, he raised the issue of freeing Pollard with Clinton, but said he didn’t want the issue linked with the peace process. He told Jewish leaders that he believes it is a sensitive issue that should not be handled publicly.

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