After three years of stalemate and bitterness in Arab-Israeli peace talks, official Washington is almost giddy with anticipation over Thursday's scheduled meeting between President Clinton and Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak.
Buoyed by the dovish cast of Barak's newly formed cabinet and his conspicuous efforts to extend an olive branch to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and other Arab rulers, administration officials say the planned three-hour session at the White House -- to be followed by a second session with Clinton on Monday -- could mark a new beginning in Middle East peacemaking.
On the assumption that Barak will use the meetings to outline in detail his strategy for reaching final peace settlements with the Palestinians and Syria, U.S. officials have already signaled that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright will travel to the Middle East in early August.
Albright's trip is expected to include a meeting in Damascus with Syrian President Hafez Assad, whose recent public praise of Barak -- after decades of anti-Israel invective -- has administration officials shaking their heads in amazement.
"I think you have to go back a generation to find an example of a newly elected prime minister of Israel coming to Washington with so much hope and expectation and anticipation," said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It could be a unique moment when the calendar of Barak, Clinton, Assad and Arafat might mesh for progress. The stars are lined up in the right order."
Much of the administration's enthusiasm for Barak stems from the simple fact that he is not Binyamin Netanyahu, whose three-year tenure as prime minister was marked by a near-total breakdown in trust between the Israeli government and its Palestinian negotiating partners -- and deep strains with the Clinton administration.
Satloff and other analysts caution that Barak, a much-decorated former general and commando, is a hard-nosed negotiator who in the past has supported West Bank settlement-building and is likely to disappoint the Palestinians when it comes to tackling such momentous "final status" issues as the future of Jerusalem.
"I think the expectations are too high," Satloff said. "There's still quite a chasm between the Israeli consensus and the Palestinian consensus on the shape of the peace. . . . You can have an era of good feeling without yet an era of great progress."
Administration officials say they have no illusions about the difficulties that lie ahead. But for now, they say, the most important thing is simply that Barak has so quickly and dramatically improved the atmosphere of Arab-Israeli relations.
In separate interviews, two senior State Department officials described Barak's inaugural speech -- in which he acknowledged Palestinian "suffering" and called on Arab leaders to "take our outstretched hands and build a peace of the brave" -- as a deliberate echo of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who signed separate peace agreements with the Palestinians and with Jordan before his assassination by a Jewish extremist in 1995.
Barak's worldview "is very different from Netanyahu's," said one of the officials. "It begins with a belief that Israel is strong and capable of taking a decision for peace and that the Arab [countries] are legitimate partners."
Administration officials also were encouraged by Barak's decision -- without any overt pressure from Washington -- to meet last Friday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and on Sunday with Arafat, with whom he exchanged gifts and expressions of support. After suggesting in a television interview Friday night that he would seek to delay the Wye River accord, which calls for additional Israeli troop withdrawals from portions of the West Bank, Barak eased Palestinian fears by promising Arafat that Israel would move to implement the deal.
During Netanyahu's tenure, administration officials noted, relations between Israel and the Palestinians were so poisonous that each side would resort to calling Middle East envoy Dennis Ross -- sometimes in the middle of the night -- to mediate the most trivial disputes. One such call took place when Israeli troops insisted on searching the vehicles of an official Palestinian delegation, tying up traffic.
"Dennis had to negotiate this logjam," a senior official said. "There's a definite sense that Barak does not approach the Palestinians with this same level of nitpicking. . . . He's much more practical."
Since his landslide victory over Netanyahu in May, Barak has played his cards close to his chest, keeping his contacts with Washington to a minimum and offering few clues as to how he plans to get the peace talks back on track. But he is hardly an unknown quantity here, having served as military chief of staff and then a minister under Rabin, his political mentor. He became foreign minister in 1996 and, a year later, head of Israel's left-leaning Labor Party.
Barak's campaign vow to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon within a year has prompted speculation that he might first seek peace with Syria, which supports Shiite Muslim guerrillas fighting to oust Israeli forces that occupy a strip of south Lebanon as a buffer against cross-border attacks. But U.S. officials say there is no reason that Israel cannot proceed simultaneously on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks of the peace process. "We think they can walk and chew gum at the same time," said one.