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Barak Off to a Fast Start

Israel’s newly installed prime minister, Ehud Barak, has made the pursuit of a “true, lasting peace” with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon his foremost priority. The remarkably disparate coalition that he recruited after nearly seven weeks of negotiations is meant to support that aim. On domestic issues the government is a ticking bomb, factionalized by rivalries and resentments. But on the need to seek peace a consensus exists. The coalition represents 75 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Given this base and his own strong electoral mandate, Barak should have a freedom of action unusual for Israeli prime ministers.

He plans to proceed quickly but carefully on the peace process. Within a few days he will meet with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Meetings with the kings of Jordan and Morocco are also in the works. Secret talks with Syria are probably already underway, with a view toward restarting formal negotiations. Barak’s conciliatory tone contrasts sharply with the confrontational approach of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under whom the peace process languished. Barak has no ideological attachment to the West Bank, most of which is likely to pass to Palestinian control under a final peace agreement. But he is committed to protect Israel’s security. He approaches that need with a confidence in Israel’s strength that Netanyahu seldom expressed.

A career military officer and relative newcomer to politics, Barak has already alarmed some Israelis by his determination to govern with a strong hand. Leaders are judged by their accomplishments, not their intentions or promises, and while most Israelis support the peace process and wish for its success they have other concerns Barak can’t afford to ignore.

For instance, Israel’s economy is hardly vigorous right now, and too-long-neglected matters of social justice cry out to be addressed. Barak has rightfully put the peace process at the top of his agenda. But for his government to maintain popular backing for peace he must show initiative and progress on the domestic front as well, and fairly soon.

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