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Amid Meltdown, Barak Stays Cool --and Plans for Domestic Agenda


JERUSALEM — Just sixteen months ago, newly elected Prime Minister Ehud Barak thrilled Israelis with his vision of achieving a quick end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, he is having a hard time even convincing them it would be a good idea to allow buses to run on the Sabbath.

Barak returned from a weeklong trip to New York on Monday to a grim political situation. His efforts to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians have foundered on the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem. His minority government seems to have little hope of surviving long after Israel's Knesset, or parliament, reconvenes in October. Leaders of his own Labor Party have attacked him publicly for what they say is his erratic political maneuvering.

He dispatched a Cabinet member Monday to discuss a possible coalition with Ariel Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud Party--the latest development in a political flirtation that Barak's left-wing allies have bitterly criticized.

Even Leah Rabin, the widow of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, has publicly flayed Barak, her husband's protege.

Her husband, she told an interviewer while Barak was still in New York, must be "spinning in his grave" over Barak's willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians on Jerusalem.

Through it all, Barak has seemed unflappable, almost cheerful.

"I'm not sure whether her husband really spins in his grave as a result of what I'm doing," Barak coolly responded to ABC's Sam Donaldson when asked about Rabin's comments.

The prime minister's calm in the political crisis "is a riddle to me, a puzzle," said Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, a member of Meimad, a moderate Orthodox party that is the only religious party still in Barak's government. "He is a very strong person."

Many of Barak's political problems, Gilad said, are of his own making.

"He has had some great achievements in the economy and with the withdrawal from Lebanon," he said. "He would have had more support for his other ideas if he had pursued them in a more sensitive way. It is very sad for me."

Political commentators have said that Barak's fate now rests in the hands of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, a man with whom Barak's relations have been icy and with whom he has not met since the Camp David peace summit collapsed in July.

Both sides have agreed to engage in intensive negotiations during the next several weeks in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough.

If Arafat also agrees to compromise on the question of sovereignty over Jerusalem, Barak has said, it will still be possible to achieve a final peace agreement with the Palestinians this fall. The prime minister has said he is confident that he could win in early elections if he put a peace accord with the Palestinians before the electorate.

But with prospects for an agreement fading, Barak is actively exploring the possibility of forming a government with Likud that would turn away from peacemaking efforts and devote itself to implementing a controversial domestic agenda. The prime minister has promised to work for the enactment of a constitution, which Israel has never had; for the institution of civil marriage; for the drafting of ultra-Orthodox religious students into the army; and for the running of buses on the Jewish Sabbath.

Many of the measures of what Barak is calling his "civic agenda" are anathema to the Orthodox religious parties. But they are attractive to Russian immigrants, many of whom are secular and helped elect Barak. Recent public opinion polls have indicated that Russian immigrant voters are deserting him in massive numbers over the question of concessions to the Palestinians.

Barak has said he believes that a government that brought together Labor and Likud with some other secular parties would have the best chance of implementing an agenda of social reform. He sent Communications Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer to dine with Sharon at the Likud leader's ranch in southern Israel on Monday night to discuss coalition prospects.

Sharon told reporters before the meeting that the two would discuss only a timetable for holding early elections, but pundits were betting that Sharon would at least hear out Barak's proposition. Barak's interest has divided Likud, with some members urging Sharon to reject it outright and others arguing that a unity government might be workable.

"I have no doubt that Ariel Sharon will make it clear to Minister Ben-Eliezer . . . that Ehud Barak has no partner to the strange ideas he keeps raising every day, to his worrying and dangerous ideas," Knesset member Limor Livnat of Likud told Israel Radio on Monday. "The Likud will be no partner to all this, and we are going ahead in preparing for early elections."

But Michael Eitan, another Likud Knesset member, said he welcomes Barak's overtures.

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