Suddenly, after years of failed starts and frustrated hopes, peace prospects in the Middle East seem to glow with promise. The leaders of Israel, Syria and the Palestinians are talking about ending their conflicts as if they really mean what they say.
Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, is eager to pursue a comprehensive settlement with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon. Denouncing the appalling waste of war from the perspective of a lifetime spent in the military, Barak has called for a "peace of the brave," meaning a peace that recognizes the essential national needs of all sides. The words, certainly by no accident, echo those earlier used by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Barak impressed U.S. leaders during his current visit with his pragmatism and his readiness to carry out Israel's commitments. He wants the United States to stand back when Israel and the Palestinians resume their negotiations, leaving to the parties the gritty work of agreeing on details. A key aim is to force Israelis and Palestinians to accept once again that they must learn to trust each other if they are to achieve their goals.
A high Syrian official, perhaps carried away by Barak's unprecedented exchange of courtesies with President Hafez Assad, says peace with Israel is possible within a matter of months. It will take a lot longer than that, and almost certainly require deep U.S. involvement, because the key issue to be settled--under what conditions Israel will withdraw from all or most of Syria's Golan Heights--is of basic strategic importance to Israel and political importance to Syria. Never before, though, has a mutual readiness to negotiate the Golan's future been so apparent.
It's always well to remember that the history of Mideast peace efforts is as much a chronicle of missed opportunities as of successes. Still, it's hard to recall a time when the atmospherics seemed so conducive to the peacemaking process. Now comes the hard need to transform good intentions into concrete actions.