Barak Heads for Washington

July 7, 2008 - 8:07 PM

Jerusalem (CNS) - Prime Minister Ehud Barak left Israel Wednesday to meet an administration in Washington with several agendas, and more than one American personality eager to reap advantage from the visit.

As a result, say Israeli analysts, the tackling of substantive issues may play second fiddle to photo-ops.

"The U.S. administration is going out of its way to make the visit a success," said Shmuel Sandler, who specializes in U.S.-Israel affairs at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

"There are several reasons. They want to show their candidate won. It's very important he gets support [in the U.S.], to boost his domestic support in Israel."

Under former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, ties between Jerusalem and Washington cooled considerably, and U.S. officials did not hide their pleasure at his defeat by Barak.

The key factor in the visit - and in bilateral relations in the months ahead - will be President Clinton's quest for a legacy, and the view that Middle East peacemaking may be a likelier vehicle for a lasting late second-term achievement than, say, the Balkans.

But there are others in Washington with aspirations that may be served by the Barak visit, Sandler told CNSNews.com, adding that the First Lady, in particular, could benefit.

Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to run for the Senate for New York, a state with an important Jewish constituency. Barak will meet American Jewish leaders in New York over the weekend.

Vice President Al Gore, with the prospect of a presidential campaign in the near future, has scheduled a lunch with Barak.

And key congressmen, some of whom will meet Barak on Monday, are both keen to get a reading of the new leader of a country Congress strongly supports, and have their own political futures to consider.

"Will these aspirations coincide or contradict [each other]? That's the question," said Sandler.

"Barak's success seems assured," said Aluf Ben, diplomatic correspondent for a leading Hebrew-language newspaper. "The political situation in Washington appears tailor-made for him."

Ben, too, cited "a cast of supporting stars" - including the First Lady, Gore and congressmen - who have "aspirations for the year 2000."

He said the stops would be pulled out for Barak, predicting that the media will be flooded with images of the two first couples.

"Their intimate dinner at Camp David [on Thursday evening] will be exhibited as a high point in Israeli-American relations, with Ehud playing Chopin preludes on the ivories and Hillary holding thoughtful discussion with Nava [Barak] about the importance of education in the future of the nation."

Sandler, too, predicted "a lot of hooha," but warned that difficulties may arise on substantive issues.

"What the Palestinians want [in final status peace talks], Barak can't sell," he said, and alluded to the mutually-exclusive claims to Jerusalem.

"Secondly, what does Syria want? If [President Hafez] Assad insists on Israel withdrawing from the Golan Heights, down to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, this will be difficult for Barak to sell to the Israelis."

But even if problems should arise relating to these or other issues, Sandler said, "I assume they'll focus on the parts where there is congruence."

Asked about the impression Barak likes to give of being heir to Yitzhak Rabin - the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995, who enjoyed good relations with Clinton - Sandler said it was important that Barak be himself.

"Rabin was a very different person. He radiated more sincerity, he was an elder statesmen, experienced," he said, adding this was probably why Barak encourages the idea of having picked up Rabin's mantle.

While Rabin served as ambassador to Washington between 1968 and 1973, and twice served as prime minister, Sandler pointed out that Americans did not know the newcomer.

Many more will after this visit: Besides the anticipated high-profile media coverage of various meetings and events, on Sunday, Barak is expected to do the round of television talkshows.