As a young conscript in the Israeli army's elite commando force, Ehud Barak knew how to keep his mouth shut.
The unit's missions--daredevil incursions behind enemy lines--were the stuff of Hollywood thrillers, but Barak was tight-lipped about them even in the privacy of his parents' home.
"He never went into detail about what he was doing, never," recalled his father, Israel Brog, an octogenarian retiree at least as circumspect as his son, in an interview last summer. "When the other soldiers would come home, though, all these rumors would start to fly--all kinds of crazy stuff, miracles."
On Wednesday, Barak, the Israeli prime minister, once again demonstrated his knack for keeping mum about breathtaking events. All day long, he uttered not a word in public about the resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks, deferring to President Clinton to make the dramatic announcement in Washington well after the Israeli evening news was over.
Today, Barak had come down with a case of flu, and a political cyclone was whirling around him over the revival of negotiations with Syria after a hiatus of nearly four years. But the Israeli leader, who has shaken up the Middle East in just five months in office, was feeling no pain.
Having pledged in his election campaign to revive moribund peace talks with both Palestinians and Syrians, Barak has done just that--and in dramatic fashion.
"Barak promised to make a lot of history during his term in office," Nahum Barnea, a leading Israeli political analyst, wrote in the newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth. "Barak is a serious man: He promised, and he is now beginning to keep his promise."
Barak, in a political gathering today, said: "We mean what we say, and we don't see our purpose in television appearances or talk . . . but rather, to change the reality."
Disciplined, calculating, by turns daring and cautious, Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, is a supremely confident man, certain of his abilities as a strategist and convinced that Israel is heading from a position of great strength into the most critical negotiations in its half-century of existence. That confidence is critical to his conviction that the time is ripe for Israel to make comprehensive peace deals with its neighbors, even though it means making territorial concessions that Barak has termed "painful."
In sharp contrast with his rightist predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, who talked tough but warned constantly of Israel's vulnerability, Barak speaks softly--when he speaks at all--and describes Israel as the strongest, most dynamic society in the Middle East, one facing no serious threat from its neighbors.
"We have here an eruption of energies, of talent, immigrants are coming, highly educated youngsters who are so devoted to the country and now creating start-ups at a rate of two to three per day," Barak said on Wednesday during a news conference with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. "We have so many . . . things to do other than to be deployed for another generation or two along the borders and bury our youngsters, and let the other countries bury theirs. So it's time to make decisions."
That confidence, coupled with his strategic vision of the region and its strong but aging Arab leaders, has renewed hopes throughout the Middle East that a new era of peace may be dawning.
In an interview published today, Barak told Yedioth Aharonoth that he sees only a slight chance of negotiations with Syria failing, even though they will be difficult. He said Syria had missed a chance for peace in 1995 when Yizhak Rabin, then the Israeli prime minister, was seeking a land-for-peace deal with Damascus.
"Syrian President Hafez Assad is a wise man," Barak said, repeating the mantra of praise for his adversary that he has employed since taking power in July. "He erred when he thought Rabin was tricking him. We hope he does not make the same mistake again."
As usual, Barak projected tough-minded confidence. Nearly half of all Israelis tell pollsters they are opposed to trading away the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, in return for a peace deal with Syria. But Barak said he is certain that a "large and sweeping majority" of Israelis will support such an agreement when it is submitted for approval in a referendum, as required by law.
"It won't be so simple to object to an agreement that senior army commanders have approved," said the premier, a former army chief of staff who has surrounded himself with former generals.
Assad, he said, "decided to renew talks after he found that I do what I say I'm going to do. I promised to promote the negotiations with the Palestinians and the negotiations moved forward."
The day belonged to Barak, as even his most ardent political rivals acknowledged. Still, the knives were out for the Israeli leader, particularly among right-wingers opposed to any territorial concessions to Syria or the Palestinians.
"He really looks like a cat that licked the cream," said the Likud party's Limor Livnat. "I only hope the bowl won't tip over on the head of the one who's licking it."
Despite denials from the prime minister's office, some accused Barak of secretly agreeing to a complete pullback from the Golan Heights as a pre-condition for talks with the Syrians. They said the premier had caved in not only to Syria but also to pressure from an American president seeking to cap his term in office with a Middle East peace accord no matter what the risks for Israel.
"It is a total surrender by Mr. Barak to the Syrian conditions, and I must say a capitulation to American domestic interests," said Likud leader Ariel Sharon.
Leaders of the 17,000 Israelis who live in the Golan Heights held an emergency meeting and said they would raise millions of dollars to fight any deal with Damascus that included an Israeli withdrawal from the territory.
In Arab countries, reaction to the news that Israel and Syria will resume their dialogue was cautious and mixed.
In Syria itself, the official newspaper Tishrin warned that Damascus "will not give up one iota of soil from the Golan. The occupation must cease from all of the Golan."
Lebanon, which hopes to be rid of Israeli occupation forces in the south as part of any deal with Syria, said it would join the peace talks after negotiators return to the region from Washington next week.
Nabih Berri, the powerful speaker of the Lebanese parliament, told reporters the resumption of talks was a Syrian victory. "The resumption of the talks must not drown us in optimism," he said, "but I expect the talks to end in months and not in years."