Ehud Barak took office as Israel's 28th prime minister today and, citing a historic opportunity, called on Arab leaders to accept what he called an "outstretched hand" to make a "peace of the brave" that would end the long cycle of war in the Middle East.
Sworn in with a cabinet picked to maximize the government's parliamentary majority and consolidate power in his hands, Barak, in his first speech as prime minister, said his mandate is to "complete the mission" undertaken 20 years ago when Israel made peace with Egypt and signed its first treaty with an Arab nation.
Appealing by name to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Syrian President Hafez Assad, he said Israel wants to pursue simultaneous peace discussions with both and to remove its troops from Lebanon as part of a drive to make peace with all its neighbors. The creation of a Jewish homeland, he said, will not be finished until tensions are resolved with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians as well as with Jordan and Egypt.
"A historic chance has been given to us," Barak said. "We can expect difficult negotiations. . . . But if we find the same determination on the other side, no power in the world will stop us." Both Arafat and Assad issued statements expressing willingness to work with Barak for peace.
The tone of Barak's inaugural remarks -- holding out the goal of peaceful relations between Israel and all its neighbors -- provided an immediate and sharp contrast with the themes of outgoing prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's three years in office, during which the Likud party leader emphasized security guarantees against what he viewed as implacable regional enemies.
Since the breakthrough with Egypt, the sometimes halting peace process has produced a treaty with Jordan, a succession of agreements laying foundations for a possible Palestinian state and discussions -- currently frozen -- with Syria and Lebanon. But a final accord with the Palestinians and a state of peace on the Syrian and Lebanese borders have proved elusive.
Israel continues to occupy a portion of southern Lebanon to prevent Lebanese guerrillas from attacking its northern border areas and also retains control of the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Although most of the Gaza Strip and patches of the West Bank have been turned back to the Palestinians and a self-governing authority has been created for them there, the march toward a permanent settlement was effectively halted by Netanyahu over his demands for improved security. Netanyahu, defeated in the May 17 election, wished Barak well and resigned from parliament, the Knesset, immediately after the new prime minister's speech.
The swearing in of the new Labor Party leader and the approval of his broad coalition cabinet by the newly seated Israeli legislature opens the way for an expected flurry of meetings focused on restarting the peace negotiations. Barak, a highly decorated 57-year-old army general, said he intends to meet with Arafat promptly and is planning to come to Washington by the end of next week.
"We are ready to move together in order to achieve the peace of the brave, which we signed with the Israeli government," Arafat told reporters at his Palestinian Authority headquarters in Gaza.
Similarly, Assad said in a joint statement with Russian President Boris Yeltsin that Barak's taking over opens "specific opportunities for constructive efforts toward a comprehensive and just peace in the region." The Syrian leader was in Moscow on an official visit, reportedly to deal with debts it owes the Russian government and arrange to update some Syrian military equipment.
Barak said he also plans to meet with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Jordan's King Abdullah, potentially important interlocutors in the peace process. Various neighboring Arab leaders are also planning to confer among themselves to set the stage for what is anticipated to be a period of accelerated diplomacy after several years of torpor.
But Barak acknowledged in his speech that all Israelis may not agree with what he does in his first weeks in office. In one potential source of controversy, the incoming minister in charge of Jerusalem issues said in a radio interview that he opposes continuation of a Jewish settlement at Ras al-Amud in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem -- a project Netanyahu's government continued despite Arab opposition and one that is dear to the hearts of Israel's hard-line settlers' movement.
Barak's performance has already drawn criticism as he extended talks with rival parties on forming a governing coalition right to the end of the legally allowed period. And while the group he created seems broadly behind a new peace initiative, it contains built-in conflicts on domestic issues -- between, for example, religion-oriented parties and those that want a more secular society.
When he nominated a relatively untested member of his own party to be speaker of the Knesset, it sparked a minor revolt. His nominee was rejected in favor of veteran Labor politician Avraham Burg, who was elected speaker today by the full Knesset.
Without directly addressing that incident, or other criticism of his tactics and choices in assembling his cabinet, Barak implied that his methods have a reason -- to increase the likelihood that peace negotiations will succeed and that the nation will accept the results.
It was in that context, observers here said, that Barak decided to act as defense minister as well as prime minister, keeping direct control of the military. Similarly, his naming of the unassertive David Levy as foreign minister was seen as a guarantee that he will retain a dominant role for himself in contacts with other countries.
"Barak tried very hard to appoint people who he is comfortable with and who are not going to challenge his broad game plan," said Yossi Alpher, head of the Israeli office of the American Jewish Committee.
The New Israeli Cabinet
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's coalition cabinet represents seven different parties, although nine posts went to his Labor Party. The majority of the ministers hold dovish views; there are no Arabs and only one woman. Here are some key appointments:
David Levy, 61
A veteran politician who has served as foreign minister twice before. He was born in Morocco and formed his own party, Gesher, in 1995 to represent Shephardic immigrants. Gesher later joined the Likud bloc and this spring joined One Israel, which is dominated by the Labor Party. Levy speaks little English and has a reputation for being unassertive.
Other ministers include:
Yitzhak Mordechai, 54, Transport Minister, a retired army general, Mordechai served as defense minister in the Likud government from 1996 until January, when Binyamin Netanyahu fired him for planning an electoral challenge as head of the Center Party. He later withdrew from the race. He was born in Iraqi Kurdistan and was brought to Israel at age 5.
Shimon Peres, 75, Regional Development Minister. Twice prime minister, Peres lost to Likud's Netanyahu in '96 by less than 1 percent of the vote. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in negotiating the Middle East peace accords.
Avraham Shochat, Finance Minister, a Barak loyalist who held the same portfolio from 1992 to 1996.
Eli Suissa, Infrastructure Minister, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party.
Yossi Beilin, Justice Minister, an architect of the Oslo accords.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, Public Security Minister; he has no security background.
Yossi Sarid, Education Minister, of the leftist Meretz Party.
Natan Sharansky, 51, Interior Minister, of the Russian immigrant party.
SOURCES: Reuters, Associated Press