Lonny Rafaeli thinks back on the night many years ago when he and fellow army commando Ehud Barak sneaked into the heart of Beirut. Their aim: to take retribution on three men who'd been involved in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Barak, commander of the secret army unit and a perfectionist, oversaw every detail of the operation, which was carried out successfully. He ordered the Israeli commandos to dress as women: He and his comrades wore wigs and long coats, which hid the grenades they carried. "He even made us wear a bra," said Rafaeli, laughing.
Now the prime minister of Israel and still a perfectionist, Barak has turned his attention to the most difficult operation of his career: making peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians. He's going about it in much the same determined way he once entered Beirut.
In a recent interview, Barak told me he's certain he can make peace with Syria. In spite of reports that President Hafez Assad's health is failing and that he is not working a full day, Barak insists Assad is the only Syrian who can do the deal. At least one senior Israeli intelligence official shares the prime minister's view. He says that the next six to seven months are "crucial," arguing: "We have a rare combination--our prime minister is determined to sign an agreement with Syria and President Clinton is committed to peace with Syria." Assad, argues this expert, "trusts only Clinton."
In a deal, Syria would have to regain the Golan Heights while Israel would receive in return normalization and security arrangements. At present there is a stalemate: The Syrian government claims that the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to retreat to the border of June 4, 1967. It demands that Israel withdraw to this border before peace talks even start--an untenable position for an Israeli prime minister to take. But the U.S. government weakened the Syrian position by releasing a statement that Rabin had made no binding commitments.
As for the Palestinians, Barak is determined to have a so-called framework agreement on principles for a final deal spelled out by next February, followed by a final deal in September.
Since coming to office, Barak has been fulfilling the agreement he made with the Palestinians last fall: He's released prisoners, opened a safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank and allowed the Palestinian Authority to start building a port. Barak says that the authority is making more of an effort to fight terrorism.
When it comes to the controversial question of settlements, Barak is trying to unify the country. Instead of confronting the settlers who live on the West Bank, Barak has made a deal with them. He has persuaded representatives of the settlers to freeze some settlements and to dismantle others. In return, Barak has agreed to preserve other settlements. Thus, instead of having the army tackle the settlers, as it did under Rabin, the settlers' representatives are confronting those who must go.
A U.S. official argues that a deal between Israel and Syria is the less likely of the two that are possible, asking, "The deal is there, but does Assad want it?" But the same official believes there is a good chance the Palestinian-Israeli framework will be concluded by February. It must deal with the most intractable issues: What will the borders of the future state of Israel be? How many Palestinian refugees will have the right to return to the Palestinian state? What will the future status of Jerusalem be?
Last week's meeting at Oslo among President Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Barak was a good first step. The Palestinians and Israelis developed a work plan; Arafat and Barak agreed to be more civil to one another and to meet on a more regular basis. The Israeli and Palestinian teams agreed to start negotiations this week. If they reach the basis for an agreement by late January or mid-February, Clinton will bring the two sides together at a summit.
Acts of terrorism pose the greatest danger to the prospective peace--as the weekend bombing in Netanya proves. There is evidence that Iran, according to one minister in Barak's government, has taken a strategic decision to use terrorism to bring about the failure of the peace process. The Israeli army is on alert to preempt terror attacks.
One of Barak's friends described him as a "lone wolf" who runs the government as a one-man show. But I left his office believing that "the lone wolf" will use the same daring and confidence that carried him into Beirut many years ago to successfully fight the battle for peace.