Barak union falls apart

3 right-wing parties leave Israel coalition on eve of summit

No-confidence vote today

Premier's ability to negotiate peace, keep power in doubt

July 10, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's coalition government fell apart yesterday as he prepared to leave for the Camp David summit, turning his ability to make peace with the Palestinians and to continue to hold power into a high-wire act.

Fearing Barak concessions in talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, three right-wing parties announced that they would leave the government.

Adding to Barak's increasing political isolation, Foreign Minister David Levy announced that he would not attend the summit. Levy and the diplomats in his ministry have been sidelined in the negotiations so far.

An angry Barak, who has struggled to hold together a shaky coalition for the past year, vowed to pursue his peace efforts undeterred. Pounding his desk for emphasis during a televised address and news conference, he declared: "None of these rejectionists will teach me how to defend Israel and its future.

"No one will teach me what security is. I must distance myself from all the political controversies and party considerations to find the way to peace that will end the conflict of blood between ourselves and our neighbors," Barak said.

"I ask you to stand behind me ... and join me in the big prayer of us all, the prayer to see peace and security for Israel at a time when we are facing the most important and greatest challenge ever to stand before us."

The prime minister is expected to survive a no-confidence vote in parliament today with help from the liberal Meretz Party and Arab members; otherwise his government would fall, and he would have to quickly get ready for national elections. But he delayed his departure for the United States until tonight so he could attend the session, which will give him another chance to appeal for support.

The three-way Camp David meeting of Barak, Arafat and President Clinton opens tomorrow with the aim of ending the 52-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict by their agreed Sept. 13 deadline.

The leaders will grapple with issues that have stymied their negotiators and have defied solution for nearly two generations, including the fate of Jerusalem, national borders and a right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Neither side has prepared public opinion for the major concessions that will be necessary to bridge wide gaps in the so-called "final-status" issues.

Clinton, in a pre-summit article in Newsweek magazine, warned of the dangers of failure: "If the parties do not seize this moment to make more progress, there will be more hostility and more bitterness - perhaps even more violence."

A sign of the bloodshed that could ensue occurred late Saturday in the Gaza Strip when Israeli soldiers returning sniper fire turned their guns on a taxi, killing a Palestinian and her infant child.

The army apologized and called the incident "a terrible mistake that is very hard to accept." The soldiers were guarding a small Jewish settlement at Kfar Darom.

Political defections

Yesterday's political defections left two parties remaining out of the six that originally formed Barak's coalition government and left it with a minority of the seats in the parliament.

As the summit was announced last week, the right-wing National Religious Party and the Yisrael B'Aliya party headed by Natan Sharansky signaled that they would quit the coalition.

The decision yesterday by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to pull out of the government was more of a surprise. Barak has made a series of concessions to Shas since taking office to keep the party in the fold.

Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has in the past supported trading land for peace. But many in the Shas electorate are much more hawkish, and party leaders evidently couldn't risk losing their support.

Like Sharansky and the NRP, Shas party Chairman Eli Yishai complained that Barak had not shared his negotiating strategy with other members of the government."We expect to be genuine partners on the way" to peace, he said. "But we need to know the way. We don't know the way."

At a Cabinet meeting yesterday, Barak refused to spell out precisely what his "red lines" are, saying this would weaken his hand in negotiations and allow the Palestinians to view them as an opening position.

Instead, he spelled out general positions, which Sharansky complained left broad room for unacceptable compromises. They are: no return to the borders in place before the 1967 Middle East war; a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty; no foreign army west of the Jordan River; a majority of the Jewish residents of Judea, Samaria and Gaza to remain in settlement blocs; and no Israeli recognition of legal or moral responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem.

The statement did not repeat a previous Israeli position that none of the Palestinian refugees would be allowed to return to their homes in Israel, opening the possibility that some fraction of them might be allowed back.

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