Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced today that he will meet this weekend with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in a swift start to his promised campaign for renewed peace negotiations with Israel's neighbors.
The announcement of the meetings, along with conciliatory language that flowed from both sides, contributed to a sense of opportunity generated by Barak's ascent to power Tuesday. His Labor-led coalition has pledged to resume the peace process that stalled under the Likud-led government of Binyamin Netanyahu.
Responding to Barak's call to set old battlefield animosities aside, an official from Syria's Foreign Ministry said Damascus is ready to match Barak step for step in the drive for a peace treaty between the two nations, which have been fighting for a half-century.
"The Syrian government is ready to match every step with a similar one and to resume peace talks from the point where they ended as soon as possible," said the official, according to news service reports from the Syrian capital. "Syria shares . . . the same wish for an end to wars and to establish comprehensive peace in the region."
From the Israeli side, incoming cabinet minister Haim Ramon said the new government will honor the Wye River accord between Israel and the Palestinians, signed on Maryland's Eastern Shore in October 1998 then shelved by Netanyahu, and will make changes only if the Palestinians agree.
Adherence to the agreement, which calls for Israel to hand over additional West Bank territory to the Palestinians, is considered by Arab and American leaders as an initial test of Barak's sincerity in building the "peace of the brave" he called for in his inaugural speech. Ambitious in intent, Barak's remarks promised simultaneous negotiations with Syria and the Palestinians.
First on the list of leaders Barak will visit is Mubarak, who emphasized in an interview last month that it is critical for the new Israeli leader to pursue concrete "confidence-building measures," such as adherence to the Wye accord, to regain the trust lost as a result of Netanyahu's policies.
Barak will travel to Alexandria, Egypt, to meet Friday with Mubarak, whose nation 20 years ago became the first in the Arab world to make peace with Israel. Ramon said the aim of that and other upcoming sessions will be to prove to Arab and other leaders that Barak's intentions are real.
"These meetings symbolize Barak's determination to resume the peace process and to renew the relation of trust between the new Israeli government and Arab leaders," Ramon said during a handover ceremony at which Barak toasted the departing Netanyahu.
The meeting with Arafat, to be held at the border of Israel and the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip, will take place Sunday. Arafat has expressed his eagerness for the process of building peace to resume and urged Barak to deal in earnest with the Palestinians as the only way to regional security.
"The Palestinian track is the central issue of the entire Arab nation," Arafat said.
Barak spoke today with Jordan's King Abdullah and a meeting is also expected to be announced soon.
The session with Arafat could be key to setting the tone for what follows. Palestinian negotiators said today that they will accept no changes in the handover of land envisioned under Wye and that they want the transfer to take place before moving to negotiations on issues such as the future of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees outside Israeli and Palestinian territory.
Barak will then travel to Washington for two sets of talks with President Clinton and other American officials, tentatively set for July 15 and 19, that could set a framework for resuming negotiations. Western diplomats have suggested, for example, that talks with the Syrians could be held under U.S. auspices, perhaps beginning this fall and following a format similar to the intensive discussions that produced the Wye agreement.
Syrian officials have said that previous negotiations with Israel, before Netanyahu's election, were "80 percent" complete on the key issues of Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for normal relations and Syrian security guarantees. Peace with Syria is considered critical to Barak's ability to meet one of his repeated promises--to withdraw Israeli troops from a swath of southern Lebanon that they have controlled for two decades to guard against attacks on Israel's northern border by Syrian-backed guerrillas.
The rhetoric has not all been kind, however. The leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, pledged that resistance to Israel will continue, and Israeli security officials announced extra steps to guard against terrorist attacks staged to disrupt Barak's efforts. And in Lebanon and Iran, leaders expressed doubt that Barak, a highly decorated retired military officer whose coalition includes many former Netanyahu backers, will prove much different from his predecessor.
CAPTION: Ehud Barak, reviewing an honor guard, is to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Friday and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Sunday.