Barak insists he's going to reach a "framework" agreement with the Palestinians within a month or two, outlining the basic shape of Israeli-Palestinian peace. A full peace treaty will follow within a year or so. Pundits and wise men from Potomac to Petach Tikvah are doing headstands trying to figure out what he has in mind.
By many folks' calculations, it doesn't add up. Talks between the two sides break down more often than a '59 Dodge. Six years after the White House handshake, they seem as far apart as ever. Israel says it will never share Jerusalem, while the Palestinians say they'll never settle for less. The Palestinians insist the settlements have to go, yet Barak keeps building (he recently announced a halt to new starts, not a construction freeze). On top of that, Israel's "peace partner," Yasser Arafat, seems to break more promises than the weatherman. And yet, there's Barak, predicting peace within a year and grinning like the Mona Lisa.
It makes observers around the world scratch their heads and wonder: Why is this man smiling? Is it for show, to maintain appearances while preparing for the worst, as many Israeli analysts suspect? Or does Barak have some secret plan up his sleeve?
It turns out Barak does have a plan, but it's not so secret. He dropped some pretty clear hints this fall, after critics claimed he had set himself too tight a deadline. "We don't need time," he said more than once. "What we need is courage."
What he meant, in effect, is that he and Arafat already know where things will end up, more or less. One day soon they're going to stand before the cameras and announce that they've decided to split the difference. Each side will have its most essential needs met. But each will get much less than it wants. There will be furious opposition on both sides. That's why they're stalling.
Both men have a pretty good idea what the deal will look like. They used to hope time and partial agreements would help their respective publics accept the tough compromises. That hasn't happened. Now, say close aides to both men, they're ready to cut to the chase.
"Barak definitely intends to have an agreement by the deadline," says Israeli Immigration Absorption Minister Yuli Tamir, a longtime Barak confidant.
"It may not be February, but it will be the end of March or early April," says Science Minister Matan Vilna'i, a close Barak ally who recently stepped down as deputy chief of Israel's military staff. "Absolutely," agrees Palestinian Chief Delegate to the United Nations, Nasser Al-Kidwa, who happens to be Arafat's nephew. "There will be an agreement, if both sides find the will."
"The details of the positions on both sides are known to each," says Al-Kidwa. "What's left, really, is taking decisions."
What will the deal look like? It will probably resemble a proposal hammered out in the mid-1990s by Israel's Yossi Beilin and Arafat deputy Abu Mazen. It called for Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank, leaving only a few crucial security zones plus the three largest settlement blocs in Israeli hands. The Palestinian areas would become an independent but strictly demilitarized state, barred by treaty from alliances with hostile Arab states.
The plan called for Jerusalem to remain united under Israeli sovereignty. An Arab village just east of Jerusalem, Abu Dis, was to be briefly annexed to the city and then given to the Palestinians as their capital. They would swear off any further claims against Israel.
It's not a done deal. Sources on both sides deny they're willing to give away as much as the Beilin-Abu Mazen plan called for. Israelis say they want security guarantees -- control of Jordan River crossings, electronic listening posts on the high ground, the right to pursue terrorists into Palestinian territory -- that Palestinians say they reject. Palestinian officials, meanwhile, say they want land from Israel in exchange for any parts of the West Bank that Israel keeps. They also insist they want part of Jerusalem proper for their capital. "This is a city which does not accept exclusive ownership," says Al-Kidwa.
Haggling over those details is what will take another year after the "framework" is announced. What's significant is that each side knows the other side's position, yet both still say a deal is imminent. That means both sides are ready to meet the other side halfway, though they won't say it out loud.
One of the dangers facing Israel, in fact, is that it might negotiate too well. A secret Israeli intelligence report sent to Barak last summer, and leaked to a London publication, warned Barak against pressing for every possible advantage. Arafat, being weak, might concede more than he can afford politically. That could cripple Arafat and strengthen his extremist opponents. "To come with demands that will weaken Arafat from within doesn't make sense," says Vilna'i.
The troubling question, of course, is whether all this will add up to peace. What's to prevent the Palestinians from taking their state and using it as a staging ground for further attacks? What if the peace with the Palestinians turns into another "cold peace" like the 20-year chill between Israel and Egypt? What's the point of peace if it's laced with hatred? Surprisingly, questions like these don't much trouble Israel's military strategists. They never considered the Palestinians a military threat.
Terrorism threatens Israeli lives, but it doesn't threaten Israel's existence. Only the armies of Arab states can do that. And progress with the Palestinians brings peace with the neighbors. Already Israel has full or partial diplomatic relations with seven Arab states, fully one-third of the Arab League.
Nor does cold peace trouble Israel's brass. From Israel's viewpoint, the Egyptian peace is a major Israeli asset, cold or no. "Before the peace we had two full armored divisions on the Egyptian border, two-thirds of the Israeli army," says Vilna'i. "Today the border is defended by 30 reservists on camels, looking for smugglers."
"Remember, in 1982 we entered with tanks into Beirut, the capital of a neighboring Arab state, and the Egyptians didn't say a word," Vilna'i says.
"The peace stood. The president of Egypt was assassinated by fundamentalists and the peace was unaffected. It's a wonderful peace." And, he said, "the minute you're at peace, everything looks different." Reason enough for anyone to smile.
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for the Jewish Journal.