BARAK'S TRIUMPH: Optimistic West hails peacemaker

World Reaction
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The Independent Online
WESTERN LEADERS hailed the election of Ehud Barak yesterday, expressing optimism that his unexpectedly wide margin of victory would foster a swift advance towards lasting peace in the region.

From the Arab world the response was low-key but generally positive, with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, echoing hopes that the peace process - moribund for much of Benjamin Netanyahu's term - would be revived. The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saib Urayqat, said the elections "prove that the Israeli people have chosen peace".

The chorus of Western approval was led by President Bill Clinton who greeted news of Mr Barak's landslide victory with restrained delight, having observed strict neutrality in public during the election campaign. Speaking at the start of a meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan, who was paying his first visit to Washington since he acceded to the throne, the US President said he was looking forward to working with Israel's new prime minister.

"Because of his military service, the question of General Barak's devotion to the security of Israel is not in question," he told reporters. "But he has evinced an intention to continue the peace process. And if he's willing to do it, I think that we're certainly both willing to do it," he said, gesturing to the King seated beside him.

"There is the Wye River accord to implement," Mr Clinton said, referring to the agreement - never implemented - reached with the Palestinians near Washington last autumn, "and lots of work to do on the final status issue - that includes the status of Jerusalem. The road map is out there."

The White House spoke-sman, Joe Lockhart, added: "The President believes that both the mainstream of Israelis and Palestinians have opted for peace, and that all sides should seize this opportunity. It is his hope that both sides will work now to move forward on an accelerated timeline towards a final settlement."

King Abdullah said that he had spoken to General Barak to wish him well. "We see eye to eye on many issues," he said, "and we're very optimistic of taking the peace process forward." In a coincidence of scheduling that suggested new diplomatic moves on the Middle East might already be in train, the Egyptian defence minister was also in Washington yesterday for talks at the Pentagon. From Cairo, the Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Moussa, said: "We expect quick activity to compensate for the time that has been lost for three years."

The restraint shown by the White House during the Israeli election campaign and on General Barak's convincing victory was in sharp contrast with Washington's open support for Shimon Peres during the 1996 campaign. That support backfired when Mr Netanyahu won his exceptionally narrow victory, and the US Administration never felt comfortable with the victor.

Yesterday, in his welcome for Mr Barak's election, the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, paid tribute to Mr Arafat for not declaring Palestinian statehood before the Israeli election. He said that France, with the United States and other countries, had been instrumental in convincing Mr Arafat that to proclaim a Palestinian State before May 17 would only help Mr Netanyahu's cause.

Among American Jews - several thousand of whom had taken charter flights to Israel to cast their vote - reactions to Mr Barak's victory reflected the polarisation of opinion over Mr Netanyahu. Given the size of his victory, however, most were expected to rally around Mr Barak, reinforcing calls for reconciliation and increasing the pressure to establish peace.

But Hamas described the result as an "Israeli trick" and said that Mr Netanyahu's defeated Likud party and Mr Barak's victorious Labour party were "the same things". Similarly, Iran's state-owned radio said: "Political analysts believe that these elections will not give a glimmer of hope to the so-called peace process."