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Hopes for peace increase with Barak - and Arafat, too

The search for peace in the Middle East is, for the moment, on hold. Israel's new prime minister, Ehud Barak, is finding his feet. There is much talk, although not by the principals. However, there is some eloquent body language that augers well.

Not that talk is unimportant. In the election campaign, Mr. Barak signaled a qualitative shift of emphasis. Where Benjamin Netanyahu preached Israel's physical dominance, harping on security in a manner that stimulated and exploited paranoia, Barak argues that security lies in peace built with neighbors.

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It'll be weeks before peace negotiations can be restarted. Meanwhile, Mr. Netanyahu's followers continue to plant settlements in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank. "Creating facts" to predetermine an outcome to their liking. They want the Palestinian state, which all acknowledge will come, to be crisscrossed with military roads, shot through with Jewish enclaves.

Netanyahu approved confiscation of Palestinian land and demolition of Arab houses. Solemn commitments to withdraw Israeli troops from occupied territory and to release prisoners were shaved down or ignored. Some Palestinians responded violently to perceived relentless provocation. Barak, after he forms his government, is expected to say what he'll stop and reverse.

Given the Israeli people's mood for moderation and peace, as expressed in the election, there's reason to hope. The same can be said of the Palestinians. Their frustration today does not have its earlier sharp edge. The slow pace of the first Israel-PLO peace, the Oslo agreement in 1993, and the absence of prospects, sparked a series of suicide bombings that killed more than 130 Israelis and wounded hundreds. The Hamas organization was involved in them all. Yasser Arafat was powerless to stop them. More to the point, he must have felt he didn't have the public backing to crack down.

Soon after the Wye Plantation agreement was signed last October, Netanyahu made it clear he wouldn't fulfill its terms on schedule, if at all. His foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, urged settlers to "grab every hilltop." Two days later, an Israeli settler was shot dead in Hebron. Within 24 hours, Palestinian police arrested the killers. Netanyahu, nevertheless, announced that Israel would postpone ratifying the accord. There followed a foiled suicide attack against a school bus in Gaza. Mr. Arafat arrested more than 100 members of Hamas and put its spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, under house arrest. The Palestinian Authority (PA) confiscated Hamas bank accounts - the first time ever. It's now more than seven months since the last suicide bombing.

A change in America body language is of the greatest importance. While no love was ever lost between President Clinton and Netanyahu, at Wye the president called the prime minister's treatment of Arafat "despicable." The US and the PA moved closer together. Mr. Clinton increased economic aid to the PA and assured it got its long-promised airport and made the conspicuous gesture of an official visit to Gaza. The CIA assumed responsibility for monitoring Arafat's security performance, taking the matter out of Netanyahu's hands. Now Israeli-Palestinian security agency cooperation is close - occasionally cordial - and there was no outcry when PA police recently arrested two senior officials of Hamas's military al-Qassem Brigade.

As the next phase of the peace process approaches, success is not assured but the prospects look better than they have in years.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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