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Barak Takes Oath of Office, Initiates Peace Discussions

By Howard Schneider
THE WASHINGTON POST -- JERUSALEM

Ehud Barak took over as Israel’s 28th prime minister Tuesday and, citing a historic opportunity, called on Arab leaders to accept what he called an “outstretched hand” to make a “peace of the brave” that would end the long cycle of war in the Middle East.

Sworn in with a Cabinet picked to maximize the government’s parliamentary majority and to consolidate power in his hands, Barak, in his first speech as prime minister, said his mandate is to “complete the mission” undertaken 20 years ago when Israel made peace with Egypt and signed its first treaty with an Arab nation.

Appealing by name to the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and to Syrian President Hafez Assad, he said Israel wants to pursue simultaneous peace discussions with both and to remove its troops from Lebanon as part of a drive to make peace with all its neighbors. The creation of a Jewish homeland, he said, will not be finished until tensions are resolved with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians as well as with Jordan and Egypt.

“A historic chance has been given to us,” Barak said. “We can expect difficult negotiations. ... But if we find the same determination on the other side, no power in the world will stop us.”

The tone of Barak’s inaugural remarks--holding out the goal of peaceful relations among Israel and all its neighbors--provided an immediate and sharp contrast with the themes of outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s three years in office, during which the Likud party leader emphasized security guarantees against what he viewed as implacable regional enemies.

Since the breakthrough with Egypt, the sometimes halting peace process has produced a treaty with Jordan, a succession of agreements laying foundations for a possible Palestinian state and discussions--currently frozen--with Syria and Lebanon. But a final accord with the Palestinians and a state of peace on the Syrian and Lebanese borders have proved elusive.

Israel continues to occupy a portion of southern Lebanon to prevent Lebanese guerrillas from attacking its northern border areas and also retains control of the Golan Heights, seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. Although most of the Gaza Strip and patches of the West Bank have been turned back to the Palestinians and a self-governing authority has been created for them there, the march toward a permanent settlement was effectively halted by Netanyahu over his demands for improved security.

Netanyahu, defeated in an election May 17, wished Barak well and resigned from the Knesset immediately after the new prime minister’s speech.

The swearing in of the new Labor Party leader and the approval of his broad coalition Cabinet by the newly seated Israeli legislature paved the way for an expected flurry of meetings focused on restarting the peace negotiations.

Barak, a highly decorated 57-year-old general, said he intends to meet with Arafat promptly after taking office and is planning to come to Washington by the end of next week.

“We are ready to move together in order to achieve the peace of the brave, which we signed with the Israeli government,” Arafat told reporters at his Palestinian Authority headquarters in Gaza.