Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright plunged into the nitty-gritty of Middle East peacemaking yesterday, discussing Barak's ideas for restarting talks with Syria and Albright's plans for a trip to Damascus.
In addition, Barak assured Albright over breakfast at her Georgetown home that Israel has every intention of carrying out the U.S.-brokered Wye River accord, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The accord calls for a partial Israeli troop withdrawal from portions of the West Bank. It was suspended by Barak's predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu.
After breakfast, the two adjourned to Albright's garden, where they held a brief, chummy news conference beneath the shade of a magnolia tree. Their appearance produced little in the way of substantive news, but it did affirm the atmosphere of mutual goodwill that has been a hallmark of Barak's visit since his arrival here Wednesday night.
After the turmoil and strains of the Netanyahu years, U.S. officials are eager to make a fresh start with Barak, a protege of the late Yitzhak Rabin, whom they regard as far more inclined than his predecessor to make peace with the Arabs. "There is a new feeling of good feeling," said the senior administration official.
All feelings aside, Barak has clearly traveled to Washington to do real business. He met privately with President Clinton Thursday for 2 1/2 hours and talked with him later that night at Camp David, Md., where the two leaders had dinner with their wives. He is scheduled to sit down with the president again on Monday.
"It's not just ceremony," said Joel Singer, a partner in the Washington law firm of Sidley & Austin who served as a legal adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and helped negotiate the Oslo accords. "I think they're getting to the nitty-gritty."
Singer noted that Barak has broken the traditional pattern by insisting on revealing his strategy directly to the president.
"It's a very unusual situation," said Singer, who interprets Barak's top-down approach as a sign that the former general wants to maintain tight control over the peace process. "Usually the two chiefs meet after the Indians have done all the work and all they have to do is call in the photographers for a photo op."
During yesterday's breakfast meeting, which also was attended by U.S. envoy Dennis Ross and Martin S. Indyk, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, Albright and Barak discussed ways to bridge differences with Syria over the starting point for negotiations.
Syrian officials insist that before the talks broke off in 1996, Israel offered--in a message relayed by then-Secretary of State Warren G. Christopher--to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967. They say the talks should begin from that position. Israeli officials say, however, that Rabin merely floated the idea of a withdrawal to see what the Syrians were willing to offer in return.
Barak and Albright "talked about ways to find a formula so we could restart the Syrian track," said the official, adding that Albright is likely to visit Damascus in August for a meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad.
Barak also gave his assurances to Albright that Israel would fully comply with the Wye River accord, notwithstanding his preference to postpone further troop withdrawals until Israel and the Palestinians begin talks on the final shape of a peace settlement.
At a meeting later with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, Barak said he has decided to buy F-16 fighter jets for Israel from Lockheed Martin Corp. in a deal that sources in his delegation told the Associated Press was worth $2.5 billion.
CAPTION: Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak met reporters in the garden of her Georgetown home.