WASHINGTON — President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak have set a goal of 15 months for achieving peace deals in the Middle East, a senior Israeli official said Friday.
Barak hopes to finalize the accords before Clinton completes his term because the president "has been a true friend of Israel," said the official, who was traveling with the Israeli delegation and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Clinton and Barak acknowledged that other leaders in the region must also be consulted on the timetable. But in setting the target during their closed-door meeting Thursday, they showed their determination to jump-start the long-stalled peace process.
White House officials refused to comment on any talk of timelines for reaching the agreements. "The president and Prime Minister Barak share the same vision of moving expeditiously to find a solution for comprehensive peace in the Middle East," said David C. Leavy, a White House spokesman. "The president looks forward to working with the prime minister in the days ahead to move forward on all tracks of the peace process."
The discussion took place at Camp David during an unusual overnight stay that dramatized the personal atmosphere that the White House has cultivated for the first official U.S. visit of Barak, who took office last week.
Optimism was high on both sides that the visit was restoring vibrant U.S.-Israeli relations after three strained years under Barak's predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.
After his stay with Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barak joined Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at her Georgetown home for breakfast Friday.
Barak and Albright beamed as they walked into the muggy heat of the garden behind her townhouse to address reporters.
"Prime Minister Barak and I have just had a very friendly and useful meeting. And I'm very, very pleased, Mr. Prime Minister, that you were able to come to my house," said Albright, sounding more like she was welcoming a long-lost friend than a world leader.
Albright's display of effusive warmth stood in stark contrast to the stilted manner in which she dealt with Netanyahu.
While Clinton, Albright and other U.S. officials saw Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace, they view Barak as their best chance at a major foreign policy coup in the waning months of their administration.
"There is a new feeling . . . a feeling of confidence and trust between the prime minister and the secretary," a senior State Department official said after the breakfast.
Barak responded with matched enthusiasm, commenting on the "really friendly, warm atmosphere" at the morning get-together.
Israeli officials said the prime minister was particularly gratified by the rare invitation to Camp David, which signaled the importance that Clinton places on the relationship.
At the presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, the two leaders brainstormed ways to make progress on the long-stalled Israeli peace talks and shared personal stories about their childhoods, White House officials said.
Clinton gave Barak a tour around the grounds in a golf cart, showing him the villa where Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1978 initialed the agreement that became the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab nation. Clinton showed Barak the notes President Carter had made during the negotiations.
The gestures were rife with meaning for both leaders, who are eager to use their budding relationship to repeat that history.
"With this administration we have an historic opportunity to move forward," said one senior Israeli official traveling with Barak.
Despite their optimism, U.S. officials acknowledged that there is still much work to be done.
Particularly, Albright and Barak discussed possible formulas for restarting peace negotiations between Israel and Syria. Those talks broke down before Netanyahu took office because the Syrians refused to condemn Arab terrorist acts.
Barak intends to make a serious effort over the next few weeks to restart them. But Syria wants to resume the talks where they broke off: Then-Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin had conceded that to obtain peace, Israel would have to give up the Golan Heights, which it seized during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Telling Clinton he was preparing to make a "painful compromise," Barak on Thursday indicated that if Syria's leaders are serious about reaching a peace agreement, he might be willing to go a long way to meet their demand.
But Barak seemed to step back from that Friday when he told Albright that he would prefer a "fresh start" to negotiations, rather than resuming where talks left off.
Clinton administration officials, determined to salvage the president's legacy after his impeachment last year, may view an Israeli-Syrian peace deal as an obtainable goal.
Barak will spend the weekend in New York, meeting with American Jewish leaders, and then will return to Washington on Sunday night for a gala dinner at the White House. Clinton and Barak plan to continue their talks Monday.