While Barak's late-night maneuver may have undermined Levy's clout as a negotiator, reaching agreement on the contentious final-status issues may require all of Barak's political authority, and then some. Palestinian sources said the meeting was positive, and had been initiated by Barak to reassure Arafat after the Palestinians objected to comments by the Israeli leader on West Bank settlements and other issues. The Israeli leader has adopted an approach dramatically different to that of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, seeking to combine concessions to conservative constituencies at home with parallel concessions on other fronts to the Palestinians. He hopes to persuade Arafat to agree to Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank in which settlements are consolidated, in exchange for offering the Palestinians more land near the Gaza Strip. Whether or not he can coax Arafat into such a deal is an open question. But while Barak may take a little flak for going over the head of his foreign minister, Arafat has no such problems — the Palestinian leader is a legendary autocrat.
Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak prefers to do things himself — and usually late at night. So does Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. And so, although Barak sent his foreign mininster, David Levy, to start the historic "final status" peace talks with Palestinian negotiator Abu Mazen on Monday, he raised eyebrows in Israel Friday by holding a secret overnight meeting directly with Arafat to discuss some of those same final status issues. It's not unusual for leaders to intercede when talks between negotiators deadlock, but these talks had only just gotten started — and Levy first heard of the meeting in the media.