Forget Monica — Bill's in Love With Barak!

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Where have you been all my life, Ehud? Bill Clinton gave Israel’s new prime minister, Ehud Barak, almost six hours of one-on-one face time Thursday, plus an intimate double-date dinner and sleepover at Camp David –- and he didn’t even have to make a campaign contribution. Why the elaborate courtship? The President badly needs a durable Middle East settlement to crown his legacy, and Barak is the first Israeli leader since Yitzhak Rabin who seems able to deliver. Clinton was never comfortable dragging Benjamin Netanyahu kicking and screaming into land-for-peace agreements, and he’ll welcome Barak’s intention to energetically pursue the process himself.

Despite the lovefest, says TIME Jerusalem bureau chief Lisa Beyer, "the relationship won’t be entirely free of friction. Under Netanyahu the U.S. became intimately involved in negotiating agreements and refereeing their implementation. Barak wants the U.S. to step back from that role and allow Israel to settle disputes directly with the Palestinians." That’s not as simple as it may sound, because the Palestinians have very little leverage and could therefore become obstinate if they feel steamrollered by Israel. "Reducing the American role gives Israel a natural advantage as the stronger party, and that makes the Palestinians edgy about letting the referee leave the ring," says Beyer. So while Washington will be happy to reduce its direct role in the peace process, it’s unlikely to let go entirely. But Barak’s strategy is premised on winning the trust of both Washington and the Palestinian leadership, and on that score he’s yet make a misstep.