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Monday, May 17, 1999 Published at 12:12 GMT 13:12 UK

World: Middle East

Peace hopes pinned on Barak

An Arab woman casts her vote

By Diplomatic correspondent, Barnaby Mason

The governments of the United States and other western countries are awaiting the results of the Israeli elections with great anticipation.

Israel Elections Special Report
Binyamin Netanyahu has been criticised abroad as the man allegedly responsible for the virtual breakdown of the Middle East peace process.

Internationally there is a widespread, though officially unvoiced, hope that the Labour Party challenger Ehud Barak will win the election and resume peace negotiations, not only with the Palestinians but also with Syria.

Character campaign

The campaign in Israel may not have been about the peace process, but it has been largely about the character and style of government of Binyamin Netanyahu.

[ image: Palestinian demonstrators burn a model Israeli settlement]
Palestinian demonstrators burn a model Israeli settlement
To a great extent, he is blamed not just by the Arabs but by many western officials for the rancorous atmosphere of the talks with the Palestinians and for the absence of any dialogue with Syria.

Mr Barak has said that if elected he will resume Israel's withdrawal from more areas of the West Bank, agreed in October last year but suspended soon afterwards.

He will also begin negotiations on the final status of the Palestinian territories, which were originally supposed to have been completed this month.

Mr Barak has promised to work for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon within a year.

It is not clear whether that would come before a deal with Syria or be part of it.

US angle

The Syrians say they want to see the peace process renewed, but Israeli officials say how far it gets will depend on the energy and interest shown by the United States.

They say there is a window of opportunity until the end of the year; after that, President Clinton's influence will wane as the American election approaches.

A Barak government would have a mandate for some territorial compromise with the Palestinians; its tone, its atmospherics would be different and more promising.

But international hopes should not be raised too high. The Israelis will still insist on Yasser Arafat meeting their demands on security and removing the threat of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.

And the issues in the final status talks - Jerusalem, borders and the return of Palestinian refugees - will be the hardest of all to resolve.

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