Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak spent his first days in power totally confusing the Palestinians about his intentions in the peace process. He made flashy, politically unrevealing visits to two friendly Arab leaders. And Barak gently tweaked President Clinton for again confusing rhetoric with reality.
Sounds like this guy knows what he is doing.
For Barak, a former chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces, mobility is everything at this stage of the long diplomatic battle he will fight. The new knight on the global chessboard of conflict, Barak has tempo and the fog of uncertainty on his side. He should exploit both as long as he can.
That means he should key his opening moves to the whole board and not just to starting talks with the Palestinians' Yasser Arafat or the Syrians' Hafez Assad as soon as possible.
Well-meaning U.S. politicians and diplomats with careers and great hopes invested in the peace process will no doubt urge Barak to focus on Arafat and Assad immediately and exclusively -- to make bold gestures to show the demoralized Arabs that he is a man of peace, in contrast to his distrusted predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu.
Barak makes his inaugural visit to the United States this week and meets with President Clinton at the White House today. Obviously he does need to deal with the Syrians and even more with the Palestinians when genuine progress can be made.
But when the Washington peace processors say Arafat and Assad, Barak should ask about Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, about Iranian President Mohammed Khatemi and even about his hosts on lightning visits to the Arab world, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah.
He should not raise these questions to delay movement on the core issue of finding a new balance between Palestinian self-rule and Israeli security, as Netanyahu too often did. Delay for delay's sake is harmful to Israel too.
But Barak should make it clear to Clinton that Israel will move cautiously toward peace with an Arab world that is not at peace with itself, that tolerates the political and physical poisons Saddam and Gadhafi manufacture and that still fails to frame for itself a vision of what living in peace with Israel genuinely means.
The lack of vision is the case even for Egypt, which Barak visited July 9. Mubarak has held power in Egypt since 1981 largely by controlling the military and following policies of immobility. He welcomed Barak to Alexandria in the spirit of seeing what the new Israeli leader could do for him and his Arab clients.
The only Arab leader who ever developed a vision of living at peace with Israel was the late King Hussein of Jordan, in his final days. But he left his son Abdullah with no money in the kingdom's national or court coffers, and the new king has had to spend his first months as monarch scrambling for handouts from abroad rather than helping restart peace negotiations. Survival at home will preoccupy this king.
Clinton believes that broader peace in the Middle East passes first through a final Israeli-Palestinian accord. He underlined that last week by asserting that no peace would be final without the return of all Palestinian refugees to homes in Israel -- a proposition that Barak quickly said was morally and logistically out of the question.
Barak has vast room to maneuver between Clinton's offhand utopianism and Netanyahu's effort to carve up a Palestinian state into disconnected patches of land that would stay under Israeli control. Since taking office July 7, Barak has emphasized a willingness to move forward and hinted at an ability to be more generous than his predecessor, without nailing anything in place.
But such generosity has to be based on change in the broad political environment surrounding the Palestinians as well as in the details of local arrangements. The Clinton administration's neglect of Iraq's rebuilding of its security apparatus and its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons since U.N. arms inspectors were expelled last year suggests Washington misperceives the interconnected nature of Middle East politics.
Getting Barak to come to terms with the Palestinians will not resolve the U.S. struggle with Iraq or the mounting battle at the United Nations over keeping sanctions on Libya. These rogue regimes continue to be either useful or acceptable to other Arab governments. Their survival against episodic and ineffectual opposition from the world's greatest power encourages the survival of the politics of hate and destruction within the Palestinian community and the Arab world at large.
It is fair for Clinton to ask the newly sworn-in Barak what he intends to do about the Palestinians and the Syrians. But it is also fair for Barak to ask Clinton what this administration's overall strategy toward stability in the Middle East is, and how it is connected to the risks the peace processors will ask Barak to take to pave the way for a broader deal.
There will be no broader regional peace accord as long as Washington does not see all the pieces on the board and understand how they relate to each other's survival or disappearance. Barak's self-protective opening is smart chess and smart diplomacy.