Barak's tour: If it's Thursday, then it must be Washington

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EHUD BARAK, the Israeli Prime Minister, was scheduled to meet President Bill Clinton in Washington yesterday to discuss Israel's approach to resuming talks with the Palestinians and Syria. The visit marks the climax of a whirlwind series of meetings aimed at putting fresh momentum behind the peace process.

"I'm eager as a kid with a new toy," Mr Clinton said before the meeting, in a comment much quoted in Israel.

The President harbours hopes of concluding his White House term with a diplomatic triumph, and will want to see the Wye Plantation agreement he brokered last year in Maryland, finally implemented. Israel promised a limited withdrawal from the West Bank. Mr Barak is seeking to include parts of Wye in a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

James Rubin, the US State Department spokesman, said, there was nothing inconsistent in implementing Wye now and opening negotiations on a final settlement, arguing the two could run parallel.

Mr Clinton will have two formal meetings with Mr Barak as well as private conversations at Camp David. The Israeli leader is guaranteed a warm welcome in Washington, following poor relations with his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Barak has put together a broad-based coalition committed to territorial compromise and Syria has shown greater than expected enthusiasm for negotiations. Both have pleased Washington.

Mr Barak says he would prefer a single peace agreement, At the same time Mr Barak is not coming to the US with detailed maps outlining the extent of Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank or the Golan Heights. Before leaving Mr Barak said he wanted the United States to play a less active role as "policeman and judge" in overseeing relations. Mr Rubin said: "Clearly, the more the parties can do themselves, the less we will need to be involved."

In the past, talks in the US over the Middle East peace process, have seldom lived up to expectations. The last agreement, reached at Wye last October, was never implemented by Mr Netanyahu and earlier accords, signed on the White House lawn, also failed to resolve Middle East differences.

While in the US, Mr Barak will try to ensure that Israel's negotiations are not under not undercut by militant Jewish lobbying groups, as happened to Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995. A poll by the Israel Policy Forum shows that 63 per cent of the six million-strong American Jewish community have a favourable impression of Mr Barak, while only 2 per cent oppose him.

It is unclear what role exactly the US can and will play in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and that is likely to be one of the key aspects of the negotiations.

"The process is one that has to be negotiated between the parties themselves and in the end they are the ones that have to make the hard decisions," said Martin Indyk, assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

Mr Barak told The New York Times he wanted the United States to play less of a role and not to act as "arbitrator, policeman and judge'' in Israeli-Palestinian disputes.

"I don't think the CIA should be involved in counting the number of policemen in the Gaza Strip to check up on the Palestinians," Mr Barak said.

The US does not disagree with this in some respects. "We want to hear from Prime Minister Barak, what his views are on the best way to move forward,'' said Mr Rubin.

But Mr Indyk added: "We can help them make those decisions. We can ease the pain of those decisions. We can, as the President has said on so many occasions, minimise the risks involved."