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Barak Appeals to Foes for Coalition

Mideast: Sharon rejects his call for a new government to help end violence. Clinton rules out an immediate summit.


JERUSALEM — Heavily criticized for his handling of the Palestinian crisis, Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday called on the right-wing Likud Party and other opposition leaders to join him in a national coalition government as scattered skirmishes and gun battles continued in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Barak urged the country's myriad political parties to put aside internecine disputes to negotiate an end to Jewish-Palestinian clashes and secure the release of three Israeli soldiers captured by Lebanese guerrillas.

"It is the right step in terms of security, in terms of our international status, vis-a-vis our adversaries in negotiations--if there will be negotiations--and it is the right thing to do in response to the feelings of the Israeli public," Barak said.

Likud leader Ariel Sharon rejected the overture, saying his party will support the Barak administration in any negotiations with the Palestinians or Lebanese but will not prop up a Labor-led government.

"I have no intention of joining Barak's government, and this must be clear," Sharon said.

But government spokesman Nachman Shai wasn't taking no for an answer yet.

"That's politics, not serious business. A coalition government is still an option," Shai insisted.

Sharon's Sept. 28 visit to Jerusalem's most contested holy site, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Haram al Sharif to Muslims, is widely blamed for igniting riots that have killed about 90 people, the vast majority of them Palestinians.

Sharon--like Barak, a former general--has long opposed the peace process, and a coalition government that includes him would undoubtedly eliminate the possibility of a final settlement with the Palestinians any time soon. Sharon has criticized Barak's willingness to make concessions over areas of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

As three more Palestinians died in the violence Wednesday, President Clinton ruled out a summit with Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ahead of an Arab League summit to be held in Cairo on Oct. 21.

"We don't need just another meeting," Clinton told reporters gathered in the White House Rose Garden, but he said he would continue the intensive telephone diplomacy he has been conducting since last weekend.

The president said he still holds out hope for the resumption of negotiations to find a final settlement to half a century of conflict. But he conceded that it will not be easy to restore the level of trust that has been destroyed.

"Lord knows how long it'll take to reestablish some of the relationships that have been severed there," he said.

The statements came after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rejected Clinton's proposal that Egypt host a Mideast summit, saying that Israel should first stop threatening Palestinians and Arabs.

Diplomatic efforts continued on several other fronts, however. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan met separately with Barak and Arafat for a second day as Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook shuttled among Jerusalem, Gaza and Cairo, trying to reduce tensions.

The Clinton administration, meanwhile, dispatched CIA Director George J. Tenet to the Middle East in an attempt to negotiate new security arrangements between Israel and the Palestinians.

Tenet has played an increasingly important role in Mideast peace negotiations over the last 18 months. Both Israelis and Palestinians warmed to the informal and affable intelligence specialist, and had requested his presence at negotiations involving final status issues.

On Wednesday, Barak accused Arafat of encouraging terrorist attacks on Israel with recent releases of Islamic militants from prison.

"Responsibility for possible terror attacks lies first of all with those who carry them out, those who send them, and those who permit the release of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members from prison," Barak said.

Israeli officials say about 60 prisoners have been freed. Hamas sources say that about 20 prisoners have been released in Gaza and 10 in the West Bank but that the leaders remain in jail with about 150 other Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners.

Fresh bloodshed underscored the urgency of international mediation efforts. Israeli soldiers shot and killed 17-year-old Sami Hassan Salim in the Tulkarm refugee camp in the West Bank and Karam Qannan, 18, at an Israeli army post near the Gaza town of Khan Yunis, according to hospital officials in the two areas.

Late Wednesday night, a third Palestinian was reported killed in a shootout near the West Bank town of Nablus. The Israeli army also fought gun battles with Palestinians in Hebron, also in the West Bank, and an army patrol vehicle came under fire from a roadside bomb at Gush Katif junction in Gaza.

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