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Comment: Israel's soldier Prime Minister mounts a campaign for peace

Like the Unionists in Northern Ireland, the Palestinians feel too weak to make permanent peace
ONCE A peace process has begun, it seems to be as hard to halt it completely as it is to bring it to success. Look at Northern Ireland and at Israel. Just as events in Northern Ireland are arriving at a point of decision, although there is no great optimism regarding the outcome, so in Israel, after a long pause, forward momentum is being re-established as a result of a change of government. The key factor is that at the core of each problem there is a functioning democracy in which an instinctive desire for peace exerts a steady pressure.

When the recent general election in Israel got under way, the pundits were unanimous. The outcome would be very close, as every election since 1981 had been. In the event, Barak won a landslide victory. The people had spoken.

Thus another optimistic phase in the Middle East peace process has begun. After the breakthrough comes the gathering of strength. While Israelis find Barak a hard man to read, lacking charisma and personal warmth, it is obvious what is going on. Thinking as a soldier, Barak is trying to build overwhelming force in order to secure his objectives. One can see this process in the way he has set about forming his government.

In the Israeli system, the Prime Minister is directly elected, but seats in the Knesset are competed for under an extreme form of proportional representation. The Prime Minister, armed with a personal mandate, must put together a coalition out of a multiplicity of parties. In the event, Barak has succeeded in forming a broad, inclusive government on his own terms with a large parliamentary majority. It is also clear that he intends to treat his ministers as subordinates rather than as barons. He is used to giving orders - he intends to be obeyed.

Having secured his base and fortified it, Barak is now scouting the lie of the land. Shrewdly he is meeting Arab leaders before seeing President Clinton. He went to Egypt on Friday; he met Yasser Arafat yesterday; and he is due to see King Abdullah of Jordan on a journey which takes him to America and back through Europe. In Cairo and Washington alike, he gains from not being Netanyahu. The attitude of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, is that Barak's arrival was a favourable development, and he should be given time to consider his first steps. This is the honeymoon period.

The Israeli prime minister is also benefiting from what appears to be a significant change in Syria's attitude. Last week a Syrian Foreign Ministry official said: "Syria shares with... Barak the same wish to put an end to war and establish a comprehensive peace in the region... the Syrian government is ready to meet every step by a similar one and to resume peace negotiations from the point where they broke off." Indeed the Syrians are saying that the discussions with the late Yitzhak Rabin got 70 per cent of the way, and what remains could be wrapped up in a few months - provided Barak accepts that Israel will withdraw totally from the Golan Heights.

Stop right there! This is where reality breaks in. Some 17,000 Jewish people now have their homes on this territory seized from Syria. Netanyahu would not contemplate them either having to leave or having to become Syrian citizens. Will Barak be able face down settlers such as these, and the political parties that represent them?

About the Golan Heights, Yasser Arafat and his colleagues have a different fear. They wonder whether Barak will concentrate on negotiations with Syria and ignore them for the time being. This seems to me an unlikely way of going about things. It must be easier to sell a package to the Israeli public in which all the security problems are tackled at once, than to announce individual deals upon which vociferous lobby groups can focus attention.

Which means that the central issue remains the 1993 Declaration of Principles, reached in secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in Oslo, and its sequel, the Wye Memorandum. Under the latter agreement, unfulfilled by Netanyahu, Israel agreed to withdraw in stages from West Bank territory (Arab areas in which live 180,000 Jewish settlers) in return for confiscation of illegal weaponry and a reduction in the size of the Palestinian Authority police force, seen as a pseudo army.

This is why, at every stop on his journey, Barak will be asked whether he intends to honour the Wye Memorandum. His formal reply will presumably be "yes" - provided the Palestinians carry out their side of the bargain. But, however he answers, he can also put a question. According to the 1993 Declaration of Principles, so-called final status talks (the big package) were due to have got under way not later than 4 May, 1996. While Barak's Arab interlocutors press him to discharge his Wye Memorandum obligations, the Israeli Prime Minister will be asking them to persuade a reluctant Arafat to engage in the talks that are supposed permanently to define the relationship between a Palestinian state and Israel.

Until now Arafat appears to have been adopting precisely the same tactics as the Jews used between 1920 and 1948 when Britain administered Palestine under a mandate from the League of Nations. This was to accept every political advance on offer, even if it fell well short of expectations, rightly expecting that further concessions would follow. Once the final status negotiations have been completed, such a policy would be impossible.

Barak wishes to proceed quickly whereas Arafat hangs back. For both sides the issues are immensely difficult, involving as they do the fate of Jewish settlers in a Palestinian state, the incompatible desires of the two sides to make Jerusalem their capital and the right of return of Palestinian refugees, whose families have been lingering in camps around Israel's borders since 1948.

Yet if one visits Israel (I made my second visit last week, this time on holiday) one cannot help but notice the disproportion between the two sides. Intelligent Palestinians follow Israeli news and trends carefully; intelligent Israelis have little interest in their Palestinian neighbours. When Israeli soldiers board an Arab bus to check the passengers' papers, the atmosphere is fearful. From the perspective of an Arab living in Israel itself or on the West Bank or in Gaza, Israel is immensely powerful. Like the Unionists in Northern Ireland, the Palestinians feel too weak to make permanent peace. That is what delays a successful conclusion to the process.