Barak Wows Washington

A self-confident Prime Minister Ehud Barak dazzled administration Mideast policy-makers during his inaugural official visit to Washington this week — and reshuffled the American Jewish deck by elevating a pro-peace process group to the top rung of the communal hierarchy.

Without a single word of public criticism, Barak served notice on mainstream groups he believes have been too quick to use American politics to interfere with Israeli policy.

Jewish leaders heard the message, loud and clear.

“If you had to summarize, his message was, ‘I only have time for American Jews who support the peace process,’ ” said a leading pro-Israel activist in Washington. “He clearly wants to blunt the impact of the opposition lobbyists who are already flocking to Capitol Hill and the Jewish groups that may give them important support.”

The results of Barak’s six-day visit included a host of new strategic cooperation agreements between Washington and Jerusalem, a new understanding of the diminished U.S. role in the soon-to-be-revived negotiations and a decision by the two leaders to meet regularly to build on this week’s momentum — a striking contrast to the freeze that kept Barak’s predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu, out of the White House.

Administration officials were impressed and surprised by Barak’s wide-ranging peace plans — which, unlike his predecessors, he laid out in detail for officials here — and by his determination to conclude a series of agreements in 15 months on what he termed “2 1/2 fronts” — Syria, the Palestinians and Syrian-controlled Lebanon.

A Sunday-night White House dinner for Barak and 400 guests was a virtual love fest, although it was shadowed by the disappearance of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife and sister-in-law in an airplane off Martha’s Vineyard.

The dinner featured a 2 1/2-hour receiving line and a guest list that was top heavy with prominent New York Jews — a political nod to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, now a candidate for one of New York’s Senate seats.

By almost any measure, the trip was a public relations and diplomatic triumph.

“Even before he came, the trip was destined to be a success,” said Joel Singer, an Israeli lawyer now working in Washington and one of the architects of the original Oslo agreement. “It was a joint decision on both sides; this trip must succeed. The administration gave him the red-carpet treatment — and the decision was made in Israel for the prime minister to bend over backward and not bring any surprises or poke the administration in the eye, as Netanyahu did.”

The visit dramatically changed the atmospherics of U.S.-Israel relations, he said — a critical element in ending the current impasse in peace talks.

Jewish leaders across the spectrum were quick to note Barak’s firm control over the Jewish portion of his agenda — and his decision to meet with a top pro-peace process group on Sunday, before his meeting with leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Israel Policy Forum leaders were among a small group dining with Barak on Friday night at his hotel in New York. The IPF was created in 1993 as an American booster of Israel’s Labor Party; in 1996, it shifted focus to support for the Mideast peace process. Two years ago, the organization merged with Project Nishma, a Washington-based organization that specializes in mobilizing Israeli military authorities who argued that the peace process was in Israel’s security interests.

Barak’s decision to meet with the IPF was particularly significant because the group has increasingly tried to position itself as an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, which Barak forces believe has been decidedly cool in its support for the peace process.

At a meeting with a small group of AIPAC leaders on Monday, Barak repeated his message of Jewish unity — and made it clear that support for the peace process should take precedence over other agendas.

But Barak insisted that he did not want to go over past complaints about weak support from mainstream pro-Israel groups.

Henry Siegman, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that the apparent parity between IPF and the two pro-Israel giants — AIPAC and the Presidents Conference — “is a not particularly subtle message; he clearly wants the American Jewish community to know he is committed to the peace process. He is opposing the notion in some parts of the Jewish community in recent years that the peace process is threatening to Israel’s security.”

Both in his meetings with Jewish groups and his sessions on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Siegman said, the new Israeli leader “is trying to pre-empt the opposition. He’s saying, Don’t try to sandbag me as you sandbagged Rabin.”

Seymour Reich, a former Presidents Conference chair, said that Barak conveyed that message with self-confidence and tact, but in unmistakable terms.

“In part, what he was saying to us is that we shouldn’t be holier than the pope on security,” Reich said. “He made it clear that negotiations will be tough, and we shouldn’t do anything to upset them.”

At one point, in response to a question about Har Homa, Barak said that he has to negotiate with the Palestinians, not the Presidents Conference, and he warned Jewish leaders not to “frighten me” with stories about who is more devoted to Jerusalem.

“He wasn’t being offensive or critical, but the message was obvious,” Reich said.

At the same time, Barak sought to reassure Jewish hard-liners by restating his belief in a unified Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, promising that Israel would not return to the 1967 borders and saying that most West Bank settlements will not be removed as part of a permanent-status agreement with the Palestinians.

“He was very effective in making the argument that the pursuit of peace strengthens Israel economically, socially and militarily,” said Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “He made it very clear that making peace and protecting Israel’s security are complementary, not mutually exclusive.”

Substance and Atmospherics

Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s six-day Washington visit, which featured an unprecedented 15 hours of “face time” with President Clinton, dramatically changed the atmospherics of U.S.-Israel relations.

But there was substance, as well. Here’s a brief rundown.

* Multi-Track Peace Process: Barak promised to “move forward simultaneously on all tracks — bilateral, the Palestinian, the Syrians and the Lebanese, as well as the multilateral. We will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to reinvigorate the process.”

Barak and Clinton agreed on a “new partnership” aimed at producing a series of agreements in the next 15 months — before the president leaves office. The partnership will include regular meetings between the two leaders and intensified discussions between their security and diplomatic advisers.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will travel to the region in early August to reinforce support for revived talks.

But the two leaders refused to divulge the details of their plan to revive negotiations.

“Sometimes in this process, the less you say, the better,” Clinton said on Monday.

* Wye implementation: “We are committed to Wye,” Barak said on Monday. “We will implement it.”

Still to be worked out with the Palestinians: A schedule for new negotiations and Barak’s proposal to combine Wye implementation with the long-delayed permanent-status talks that will take up the hardest issues — Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and water.

* Foreign aid: Clinton announced a Memorandum of Understanding that confirms his intention to boost U.S. military aid over 10 years, to a level of $2.4 billion. The MOU will also formalize the agreement between the two countries to phase out Israel’s economic aid over the same period.

Clinton also promised to start pressing Congress for the $1.2 billion promised to help Israel implement October’s Wye River agreement.

* Syria: Both leaders responded w
ith cautious optimism to the latest signals that President Hafez Assad may be ready for serious negotiations. This week, reports from Damascus indicated that Assad has appealed to Palestinian terror groups based in Damascus to end their war against Israel.

Albright will visit Damascus in early August to sound out Assad. Israeli officials said talks could resume “in a matter of weeks,” but they did not indicate exactly how that might happen.

And Clinton promised to “make it known to President Assad what I consider to be the very satisfactory results of this meeting and that this is an important time to start the peace process.”

* Water: A new joint task force will explore options for new sources of water for the parched region, and how the United States can help. Water resources are expected to be a major roadblock to the upcoming permanent status talks. The task force will report to both leaders by the end of the year.

* Strategic Cooperation: The president promised funding for a third Arrow battery. The Arrow anti-missile program, developed by Israel with American financing, will be Israel’s first line of defense against a new generation of Arab ballistic missiles.

In addition, the two countries will expand collaborative efforts to develop new, advanced anti-ballistic missile technologies.

Clinton announced creation of a Strategic Policy Planning Group that will develop proposals for expanding Israel’s deterrent capabilities. Another new Memorandum of Understanding will accelerate the joint effort to prevent the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists.

* Jews in Space: To highlight the new spirit of cooperation, Clinton announced that the first Israeli astronaut will travel with the Space Shuttle in 2000, “taking our partnership to new heights, literally,” Clinton said on Monday. — James D. Besser, Washington Correspondent