Ehud Barak

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It's time to talk, but Ehud Barak will sing first. The Prime Minister of Israel goes to his tiny but powerful stereo system and, after fumbling with various remotes, queues a passage from Mahler's Symphony No.2. He begins to sing along, his arms sweeping up and fluttering in full operatic fashion. He carries on for a minute or two before turning the system off and settling merrily into his chair. "Music," he says, his eyes opening wide for emphasis, "changes the atmosphere in this room."

Six months into his tenure, Barak has effected an atmospheric change that resonates well beyond the confines of his modest bureau in Jerusalem. Though most of what Barak set out to do remains undone, he has delivered a sense of hope, something that had gone missing in the region before his election last May. Peace treaties with the Palestinians and Syrians are still to be drafted and Israel has yet to extricate itself from south Lebanon, but in Barak's singular determination to achieve these goals, he has made them seem, once again, like reasonable prospects.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the news was mostly troubling. In Iran conservatives had the upper hand in their battle with the reformers, led by President Mohammed Khatami, over the country's future. An earthquake of biblical proportions claimed 20,000 lives in Turkey. Two kings died, leaving Jordan and Morocco in the hands of dynamic but untested young princes. Iraq's Saddam Hussein continued to vex allied forces trying to contain his power from the air now that U.N. arms inspectors can no longer patrol his territory.

The Arab-Israeli peace process had its snags, too, even after the removal of Barak's inflexible predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. Israeli and Hizballah forces continued to bloody each other in south Lebanon, but Barak was the first Prime Minister to promise to quit that territory, after 17 years of occupation, and to give himself a firm deadline--July 2000--for withdrawal. In the West Bank, the Israelis kept expanding Jewish settlements, in violation of international law and to the grief of the Palestinians, who want the whole of that territory for a future state. But gone was the sense of unrelieved crisis that pervaded the Netanyahu years. In the most dramatic development of all, Israel and Syria agreed to resume land-for-peace talks, after a four-year suspension, amid a sense that, with Barak's pragmatism, a peace treaty was within reach.

Barak is not the cleverest of politicians. Faced with new--and as it turned out, inflated--statistics about hunger in Israel, he dropped a real clanger of a solution, suggesting rich people should open their refrigerators to the poor. He's not the handiest of diplomats, either. Once, in the midst of renegotiating an accord with the Palestinians, his office was compelled to apologize after issuing a high-handed statement informing the other side they must take Israel's offer that night or else Israel would unilaterally implement the less favorable original plan.

Still, the former general may yet prove a real leader. He's tired of the never-ending talk of peace; he wants the real thing. By now, all the parties know each other's positions. The contours of a future deal are plain for all to see. "It's eight years after Madrid," says Barak, referring to the first Arab-Israeli peace summit. "We know everything. It's time for decision. It will take every drop of leadership on both sides. It will take painful decisions. But there will be no better opportunity. And the alternative is a tragedy for all of us."

Barak, the ex-commando, has put into action his preference for doing over posing. Hence the Israeli army has prepared a plan for withdrawing from south Lebanon. While allowing settlement growth in general, Barak did dismantle a handful of outposts put up without government approval. For six years, the Palestinians were promised access to a route through Israel connecting the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and past Israeli leaders acted as if it was impossible. "There were years of blah, blah, blah about it," says Barak. "I just came, I ordered, 'Okay, open it.'" Similarly, Barak cleared the way for construction of a Palestinian seaport in the Gaza Strip, a long-delayed project. "We are doing to the letter whatever we took upon ourselves," he says. "We don't wait. I don't believe that time helps. It gives more opportunities for bloodshed, for getting out of focus."

In an unprecedented move last summer, Syrian President Hafez Assad praised Barak as a "strong and honest man" with "a real desire for peace." Yasser Arafat, who considered Barak "just a cold fish" before his election, recently lauded him as "straight," someone whose word was true. Barak, 57, is anxious to seal definitive peace deals with the Syrians and Palestinians before Assad, 68, and Arafat, 70, both of whom are in questionable health, depart from the scene. In a recent parliamentary meeting, a legislator mentioned the prospect of Arafat's death and Barak muttered instinctively, "God forbid." He knows that neither Assad's nor Arafat's successors will have the authority those men command to sell their constituents on the concessions necessary for new treaties.

Achieving those agreements remains an elusive goal, despite Barak's enthusiasms and because of some of his tough positions. Still, after three years of bad faith, Barak's high spirits are a palliative tonic. Recently, in a meeting, Barak and Arafat found themselves standing beside a window and the Israeli was struck with an image: that the two were about to jump together, each holding the other's rip cord. Barak felt sure they'd both land safely. Lately, he has taken up the call made by both Assad and Arafat, borrowed from De Gaulle, for a "peace of the brave." For the first time in some time, the Israeli, Syrian and Palestinian leaders are at least singing the same tune.