THE NEW Israeli leader, former chief of staff Ehud Barak, has been taking Washington by storm. His evident purpose is to nail down American commitment to Israeli negotiating methods and goals -- to come as close as possible to a partial dependent's dream target of an independent policy. Playing on his predecessor's reputation for intransigence, Prime Minister Barak has made an appealing presentation of himself as a tough but flexible soldier-statesman on the model of the martyred Yitzhak Rabin. The stage is set for a negotiating breakthrough.

The Israeli-Syrian prospect is simple. If Syria satisfies Israel's necessarily demanding security requirements, Israel will give back all territory taken from Syria in 1967: for less security, less territory. It will take not just a "peace of the brave" but an unsentimental, businesslike negotiation without illusion. The Syrian client state of Lebanon can be tucked into the package.

An Israeli-Palestinian peace will require decisions that go well beyond any land-for-peace formula. Israelis must finally decide on what West Bank settlements they will have to yield to provide Palestinians with a territory large, substantial and contiguous enough -- and with a Jerusalem connection -- to create a Palestinian state worthy of the name. Palestinians must decide what territory (and what measure of sovereignty) they must trade off to induce Israel to accept their state.

These are the sunny days. Direct Arab-Israeli negotiations are on holiday, and so are the tensions built into the different situations of the secure, globally positioned United States and the strong but regionally besieged Israel. In the past few days, moreover, few Arab voices have been heard speaking for the people who will be across the table. But those voices will be heard, and the United States will be called on to mediate the differences that emerge. This is an opportunity for a ready Clinton to shape a diplomatic result that could be central to the legacy of his presidency.