Mr Barak faces his toughest test yet in negotiating for peace

Few Israeli leaders have taken power amid as much domestic and international goodwill as Ehud Barak in May 1999. The widely detested Benjamin Netanyahu had been consumed in a landslide; the incoming Prime Minister promised a new drive for a settlement with the Palestinians and for peace with Syria, and set a firm date for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the killing grounds of southern Lebanon. Barely a year on, however, those expectations lie close to ruin.

Negotiations with Syria, the success of which looked an odds-on bet just before Christmas, are back in the deep-freeze. On the West Bank, Palestinians have taken to the streets in fury, despairing that Israel will ever make adequate concessions and fearful that their own leaders will let them down. Either way, the official mid-September deadline for a final-status settlement is surely unreal.

The Knesset, meanwhile, is in turmoil, as Mr Barak's broad coalition, linking Labour with both religious and Arab parties, threatens to disintegrate. The new Prime Minister's style has been more conciliatory than that of his abrasive predecessor, but, one is entitled to ask, what has changed in substance from the bad old days of Netanyahu? Adding to the sense of déjà vu was the arrival this week of the special US envoy Dennis Ross on yet another mission to "get the peace process back on track" - except that this time Bill Clinton, in the twilight of his presidency, can exert less pressure than ever.

The only promise Mr Barak looks certain to keep is withdrawal from southern Lebanon, which is already under way and could be completed before the target date of 7 July. But that must take place without the umbrella of a wider peace treaty with Damascus, leaving the Prime Minister to accomplish that trickiest of military manoeuvres: an orderly retreat under fire, in this case from the Hizbollah guerrillas backed by Syria and Iran. One way or another, it is not quite what Israelis bargained for when they elected Mr Barak. Small wonder that some say his time in office is already running out.

Now all may not be quite as bleak as it looks. His decision to hand over the village of Abu Dis, on the edge of Jerusalem, to full Palestinian control may have split his coalition down the middle; but at last discussions are closing in, both metaphorically and geographically, on the crunch issue of the status of Jerusalem, which must be dealt with in any final agreement.

Conceivably, too, the parallel secret talks that have just been revealed to be taking place in Stockholm could produce a breakthrough, much as those in Oslo did before that historic handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in September 1993. And whatever happens, withdrawal from Lebanon will deprive President Assad of his strongest card in securing a deal on the Golan Heights.

But another season of historic decisions is upon Israel, perhaps the most important in two decades. The Prime Minister is a tough and skilful operator, and Israeli coalition politics are notoriously impossible to predict; so perhaps today's pessimism is as exaggerated as was last year's optimism. But two things are certain. Mr Barak is facing his greatest test. And whatever course he chooses, for both Israeli and Palestinians, a long, hot summer lies ahead.

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