A HOPEFUL MOOD has settled upon much consideration of peace prospects in the Middle East. The expectation is that Israel's newly sworn prime minister, former armed forces chief Ehud Barak, will succeed by his reasonableness where hard-liner Binyamin Netanyahu faltered. Gen. Barak's forward-looking statements have helped generate an eagerness to get on with the stalemated peace talks. Even Syrian strongman Hafez Assad has joined the chorus, putting Gen. Barak in the peace camp.
In six weeks of backstage cabinet-making, he went to diverse as well as multiple points on the cluttered Israeli political spectrum with the evident intent of making his government not only negotiations-worthy but defection-proof. His coalition gives him 75 seats (of 120) drawn from seven parties. Its downside is that his many promises could bust his budget, coalition and secular commitment as well.
Prime Minister Barak faces the immediate task of organizing negotiations with the Palestinians and with the Syrians (and Lebanese), too. He says he is equally committed to both. Whatever the procedure, the diplomatic landscape his predecessor leaves him is not as barren as many Netanyahu critics have made out. The Likud leader, even as he went into a diplomatic stall, brought much of the Israeli right (1) to the notion of some territorial compromise on the West Bank and (2) toward the concept of a Palestinian state made safe for Israelis by demilitarization, transparency and other measures.
But Gen. Barak still must show a readiness to submit Israeli West Bank settlements to a process of negotiation. Further difficult questions -- borders, water, refugees, Jerusalem -- follow on the Palestinian track, and a major showdown of wills looms in land-for-peace talks on the Syrian track. If there is a place here for cautious hope, there is a place for tough bargaining as well.