'The Peace Of The Brave'

This week President Clinton will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat at a summit in Oslo. Their goal: to bring movement to the Middle East peace process. In an interview last week with NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth, Barak was confident that he will ultimately make peace with the Palestinians. Prime minister since July, he also made it clear that he believes he can make a deal with the elusive Syrians. Excerpts:

WEYMOUTH: You say talks will begin soon with Syria. Why?
BARAK: That's what I really believe. There is an urgent need and a golden opportunity to achieve peace between us and Syria, to put an end to the conflict in Lebanon, to secure water for Israel... to provide early warning and security arrangements, to open borders, to establish embassies, to normalize relations and to provide a better future for children in Syria, Israel and Lebanon. It's time for action, not for Talmudic disputes about formulas regarding how we should enter the negotiating room. Our task is to accomplish "the peace of the brave."

Isn't "peace of the brave" Syrian President [Hafez] Assad's phrase?
It was [Charles] de Gaulle's. Assad reinvented it. Even Arafat used it. Now I'm using it. It's exactly what's needed.

There are reports that Assad is not in good health. Is he still a viable peace partner?
I am confident that he is the only partner, the only man who can make decisions about peace in Syria. I believe he is a strong, reliable, responsible and impressive leader. I don't believe there can be a comprehensive, enduring peace in the Middle East without a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.

Have there been secret talks with Syria?
There were a lot of contacts in the last few months through a lot of intermediaries. But the moment of truth is coming. The leaders will have to make up our minds to step forward and do what history tells us we have to do.

Syria's foreign minister has said Israeli acceptance of the June 4, 1967, border is a precondition for negotiations.
You can't expect me to run the actual negotiations for a peace agreement with Syria through the pages of leading American publications. It should be done between us and Syria. And the Americans have a lot to contribute--to assure stability and provide the strategic umbrella and financial safety net.

Assad must be watching the U.S. Congress.
Clearly Syria has its own bilateral issues with the U.S. If they are solvable, they will create better conditions for a peace agreement to be successful.

What would a peace with Syria look like?
Peace always looks better than war. And believe me, I tried both.

Would you withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon by next July, as you have promised, if there is no deal with Syria?
I don't see a reason to speculate when I believe there will be negotiations with Syria in the next few weeks or months. Negotiations with Syria are the right way to solve this. They are highly important to opening the door for an agreement with Lebanon.

What did you mean when you said there should be a fence to separate Israelis and Palestinians?
I was elected telling people I am going to physically separate us and the Palestinians in order to encourage cooperation, mutual respect and trust. And in order to encourage the development of the Palestinian Authority. I quoted Robert Frost about how "good fences make good neighbors." I think [a fence] is needed for personal security and security of property. It is needed to give the Palestinian infrastructure and economy a chance to stand on its own feet.

You will have a border but will cooperate.
Separation does not mean cutting off or noncooperation. Separation means that when you stand on your own feet, you know whether you are in Israel or the Palestinian entity.

You have said there will be no Palestinian workers in Israel after three years.
I fully realize they are highly dependent on our economy as a source of income. But it's healthier in the long run for them to establish their own economy. Why should we control the exports and imports of the Palestinian entity? Once they create their own entity, why should they get permission from the governor of Israel's central bank to change the rate of exchange of their currency, or my permission to import a car from Japan? We are not their patrons. They are real partners. Gradually, the best part of the [Palestinian] work force will work in the Palestinian entity, but it will take a long time.

How is your relationship with Arafat?
We have a very good relationship, but he is not a Zionist. He is a Palestinian leader. He will do his best to negotiate for the Palestinian interests. I highly respect him as the leader of the Palestinian people.

Do you talk to him often?
I talk to him, I pass messages to him and we negotiate through our teams. Our relationship is good in the sense that it creates openness, frankness and mutual respect.

Will you be able to get the "framework" agreement with the Palestinian Authority done by your deadline of February 2000?
I have been in office for less than four months, and after five years of talks about safe passage [a route running between Gaza and the West Bank], it operates. After four or five years of talking about a port [in Gaza], the Palestinians have started building it. Nothing is perfect but we have to act, not just talk.

Are the Palestinians acting to stamp out terrorism?
Cooperation [between Israel and the Palestinians] about avoiding terror is strengthening. They are making more effort and we are [too]--we fully understand that major terrorist acts might derail the peace process. We have allowed Nayef Hawatmeh [leader of the Palestinian terrorist organization DFLP General Command, based in Damascus and responsible for major terror acts in Israel] to come back if he accepts certain conditions, as a result of Arafat's request to give a chance to those who support the peace process. [The AP later reported that Barak had decided Hawatmeh violated those conditions.]

You have said you will dismantle some settlements and freeze others.
I said all along we would put an end to private initiatives in settling new outposts and that those created during the election campaign would be reconsidered. We did exactly that. I'm not a typical leftist--I have great respect for the pioneering role of the settlers. I'm emotionally attached to the places where the settlements are located. But I am a realistic political leader. The lesson we learned from history is that we should carry on with our dreams and [honor] our heritage, but we must implement practical policies, strengthen the state of Israel, unite it and give it a clear sense of direction.

Before your election, Israel's relationship with the United States had soured. Has that changed?
I believe we renewed the intimacy and mutual trust with the administration, the Congress and the American people. And we resumed open, trusting relations with [French] President [Jacques] Chirac and [Prime Minister Lionel] Jospin, with [Germany's] Chancellor [Gerhard] Schroder, with [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair. We see a renewed openness from the Magreb to the Gulf States. We find it easier to deal with Eastern European countries and the Russian federation. We stopped the deadlock of the previous government, a time when our neighbors and rivals were becoming the darlings of the world and Israel was becoming isolated and defensive internationally.

Are you worried about the $1.2 billion that was guaranteed to Israel under the Wye agreement [signed in 1998] but not appropriated?
It is very important. We are already spending the money based on the assumption that it will be passed by Congress. This was a commitment of the American administration.

Are you prepared to play a role in fighting to get the money?
I don't think it's appropriate for an Israeli prime minister to step into a dispute between the administration and the Congress.

This week you are going to Oslo to meet with President Clinton and Chairman Arafat. What do you expect from Oslo?
It is a very important occasion. I believe this meeting can help us resume momentum.

Will you fulfill Rabin's legacy?
I will do whatever can be done in order to secure a strong and self-confident Israel. The way to secure and strengthen Israel is through peace agreements--by pursuing "the peace of the brave" with our neighbors.

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