Prime Minister Ehud Barak pledged today to repair Israel's frayed ties with the United States but urged a reduced role for Washington in peace talks between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors.
"It's up to us, the players," Barak said in an interview on the eve of a highly anticipated inaugural visit to Washington. "No one can impose on us something that does not serve the common goal of making peace."
Barak's comments described an amiable but unmistakably independent position before his five-day U.S. visit, which is scheduled to begin Thursday and to include two meetings with President Clinton and a private dinner at the White House.
Barak acknowledged that Clinton's influence could make or break peace negotiations. "I want, first of all, to resume trust and a certain level of intimacy between the United States and Israel," he said. But he added that he favors downgrading the often intensive intermediary role the United States has played for the past three years between Israel and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
In particular, Barak complained that the CIA is playing an inappropriate role. Under the U.S.-brokered Wye River agreement last October, the intelligence agency was assigned the task of arbitrating security disputes between Israel and the Palestinians, involving the CIA station in Israel in some of the most sensitive and contentious issues dividing Israeli and Palestinian police forces.
Many American and Israeli analysts agree with Barak's views on U.S. mediation, which delved into every detail of contacts between the Palestinians and Israel under the former government of Binyamin Netanyahu. This level of involvement was often necessary because frosty relations between Netanyahu and the Palestinian leadership made direct contacts difficult.
In contrast, Barak sought to place himself in the line of Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated Israeli leader who had built up a trustful relationship with Arafat. But he also set the stage for possible differences with the Clinton administration by declining to commit Israel explicitly to carrying out the remaining troop withdrawals mandated by the Wye accords by the end of this year. The pullback was agreed to, then shelved, by Netanyahu.
Barak seemed eager to contain expectations that peace may be suddenly at hand and warned that tough negotiations lie ahead. He said he hopes to complete the Wye pullout this year, which would raise the amount of West Bank land under full or partial Palestinian control to 40 percent. But his remarks suggested that he is reluctant to spend his considerable political capital at home on piecemeal troop pullbacks, preferring to save it for a comprehensive final agreement with the Palestinians on borders, the future of Jerusalem and the difficult refugee question.
"The implementation of every stage [of troop withdrawals] is in a way like giving birth," Barak said. "It's painful, and still it gives a lot of happiness later. But you will never ask a woman to give birth in three different stages. We have to give birth to one peace agreement, and we should be careful not to limit, or to reduce, the chances of achieving it by cutting it into too many painful steps."
The Clinton administration has insisted that the Wye accords be carried out fully by both sides, and Palestinian leaders repeatedly have rejected the idea of delaying pullbacks further. But in a meeting Sunday with Barak, Arafat emphasized his conviction that Barak intends to make peace and chose not to underline the Wye timetable.
Barak, who was elected May 17 and took office July 6, seemed at home in his relatively modest new office, where he has already hung a photo of Rabin, his mentor and role model. Relaxed and expansive, the Israeli leader set a fresh and friendly tone that he clearly hopes will distinguish him from Netanyahu and ease his talks in the United States.
While sidestepping specific questions about his intentions on peacemaking with the Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians, he stressed that after three years of recriminations and diplomatic stagnation, Israel will return to the good-faith negotiations that marked the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians.
"I can tell you that it will be the Rabin way," he said. "Namely, everything will be on the table, and basically we'll be on the same side of the table trying to solve the problem rather than quarreling about describing it or shaping it."
Barak noted that he has spent "hundreds of hours" in the prime minister's office since the 1980s as a military officer and cabinet minister under several predecessors. Next to the Rabin photo on the wall was one of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. An English-language biography of Syrian President Hafez Assad was prominently displayed in the bookcase behind Barak's desk.
Barak avoided direct criticism of Netanyahu, but he clearly blames his predecessor for what many analysts describe as recent diplomatic setbacks suffered by Israel. In particular, he suggested that a new warmth between the Clinton administration and Arafat's Palestinian Authority is a direct consequence of Netanyahu's failure to sustain the friendly bonds Rabin forged with the Clinton White House.
"When words do not carry content, commitment or a kind of intention behind them, you end up just moving the air between your [vocal] chords and the other guy's membranes in his ear -- that's it," he said. "We have to renew trust. . . . We have a unique relationship with the United States -- very shared, common goals and mutual interests. But somehow, the kind of highly sympathetic [U.S.] administration to Israel turned to become closer, in a way, to the Palestinians than to the previous government of Israel."
Washington perceives Barak's visit, which begins with an Oval Office meeting, as an opportunity to reinvigorate prospects for a durable peace in the Middle East. U.S. officials applaud Barak's repeated expressions of goodwill, including a public exchange of compliments with Assad.
The rosy rhetoric and a flurry of meetings with Arab leaders have cleared some of the sour air that accumulated in recent years. Yet, in public at least, Barak has been reluctant thus far to commit himself to steps that would add substance to the symbolism.
In addition to the troop withdrawals, for instance, Barak has not said what he will do about two planned Jewish building projects in Jerusalem that Palestinians say are designed to erode their foothold in the city, which is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. Also, he has not said if he believes the Palestinians have complied with security commitments made under the Wye accords.
He has not publicly endorsed the idea of a fall negotiating meeting with either Arafat or Assad, which could be among the fruits of his meetings in Washington. And he has not committed himself to dismantling Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
His reticence may be partly a byproduct of his long military career, during which he was known for meticulous planning and fastidious attention to detail. Still, as a much decorated commando leader who operated frequently behind enemy lines, Barak also was known for his daring and innovation. Many analysts believe he has the courage, and the mandate, to carry out both his pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon within a year and to make a deal with the Palestinians.
"You know, I told Arafat I am totally -- I am not a politician," he said. "I spent all my mature life in uniform, and I was brought into politics by Rabin and [former prime minister Shimon] Peres four years ago, and then Rabin was assassinated and the whole [peace process] stopped.
"And I was elected right now by the people of Israel, in my judgment, to . . . put Israel [back] on track and keep moving. We have a destiny; we have a sense of direction, a sense of identity. We are quite a unique nation. We should fulfill ourselves but in a very realistic and open-eyed manner."
CAPTION: Prime Minister Ehud Barak sits under a portrait of his mentor, Yitzhak Rabin, at a meeting in parliament. He says Israel will deal with the Palestinians "the Rabin way . . . trying to solve the problem rather than quarreling."