Soldier offers peace

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 July, 1999, 12:00am

However often prospects of Middle East peace are dashed, fresh hope is never far away if only because a settlement would so obviously be in the interests of the vast majority of those concerned.

The assurance by the new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, to President Bill Clinton that he is prepared to move quickly for a broad peace might be greeted as simply the latest in a long line of expressions of goodwill by incoming Israeli governments which then find that domestic politics make it increasingly hard to deliver on initial optimism. But other factors give reason to believe that the peace process may have a good chance of advancing.

An Israeli aide says a 'specific move' to relaunch the peace process between Israel and Syria is expected within weeks, with Israel ready for 'a painful compromise'. Although this would not include full withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights, Mr Barak may be ready to consider a withdrawal from part of the area in exchange for an agreement with Syria.

The scope of any broad peace agreement would be intimidatingly wide, covering Lebanon as well as normalisation of relations and a boundary agreement with Syria. But Mr Clinton clearly feels more hopeful with Mr Barak in charge than he did with his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The breakdown in Northern Ireland shows the destructive power of sectarian divisions. But the Middle East has not seen such a burst of activity for a long time. As well as Mr Clinton, Mr Barak has met leaders in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, as well as the Palestinians.

If he can maintain the momentum and, with US and Syrian backing, turn it into a process beneficial to all sides, the former army chief may go down as the ex-soldier who brought peace to one of the world's most troubled regions.