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CRISES IN THE MIDEAST

Few Options Remain for Israelis, Palestinians

Mideast: Barak can form government with Sharon. Arafat can enlist Hamas. Both alternatives may only serve to erode trust even further.

October 14, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — With the crisis in the Middle East escalating sharply, the options available to two leaders who seem to be hurtling toward disaster are narrowing by the day.

Whether the Israelis and Palestinians can rescue themselves by forming emergency governments, attending international summits or even by waging more war, one thing is certain: The kind of trust-building peace process envisioned in the landmark 1993 Oslo accords is no longer possible.

Palestinian anger against Israelis, and Israeli anger against Palestinians, has deepened during two weeks of violence that culminated Thursday in the lynching of two Israeli reservists and the Israeli shelling of Palestinian targets. Belligerence on the two sides has calcified.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat have turned to their right flanks to bolster their weakened political positions.

Barak's right flank includes hawkish opposition leader Ariel Sharon, who is mulling an invitation to join the government as if he had all the time in the world. Arafat's right flank includes Hamas militants, many of whom he just freed from prison.

Extremist attitudes on both sides are flourishing: Sharon's entry into the government could kill any chances of settling the 52-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the freedom of Hamas militants could unleash a wave of terrorism.

Barak's overture to Sharon came as part of the prime minister's efforts to build a "national emergency government" that can run the country at this time of profound crisis. Especially if Israel is headed into a period of prolonged conflict, Barak needs as broad a power base as possible; his coalition government has lost its once-commanding majority in the Israeli parliament. And the public overwhelmingly wants a unity government, according to polls.

"Ariel Sharon is a deserving, serious man and definitely a very important partner for a national emergency government, and obviously in such a government he could be influential," Barak said at a news conference.

Sharon, head of the right-wing Likud Party, is also reviled in the Arab world, which holds him responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

His presence would buy time for Barak because the formation of the new government would defer the calling of elections that opposition parties were expected to seek as early as the beginning of next month. But Sharon's presence also would drive the Palestinians to distraction, inhibit any attempt at negotiations and tarnish the Israeli government's image abroad.

The Likud Party has said it would join forces with Barak only if he renounces his earlier offers to concede territory to the Palestinians.

It is unclear how an emergency government would work, how its decisions would be made and who would get what ministerial posts. In fact, the outlines are so vague that many in the opposition are suspicious that Barak is luring them in to provide political cover, but in the end will not share power or authority.

"It's a viable government only as long as there's no peace process," said Mark Heller, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. "If the peace process comes back, there's no question this government would fall apart."

Many here believe that the establishment of a government with Sharon would prompt Arafat to exercise one of his options: the unilateral declaration of an independent Palestinian state. Such a move would further escalate tensions.

While there is considerable debate over the extent to which Arafat controls all elements of the insurrection in the streets, there is consensus among Palestinian analysts that he will not be willing to clamp down on the violence until he has something to show for it.

The Arab summit scheduled for next Saturday may be just such a gain. It represents an important show of united support for Arafat from Arab states that have often disdained him in the past.

Arafat also has freed numerous prisoners from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the last few days, after including their leaders in a recent Cabinet meeting. The Israeli government and security establishment are alarmed and believe that a new wave of terrorist attacks is all but inevitable.

Some analysts suggest that Arafat, while cultivating an underdog image as scores of Palestinians are killed by Israeli forces during riots, does want to send a message to Israel that his people have additional tools in their arsenal. But a terrorism campaign would cost Arafat valuable international support.

Barak's message in Thursday's airstrikes against Palestinian Authority targets, meanwhile, was that restraint goes only so far. The Israeli military is prepared to hit again and again, each time choosing more significant targets.

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