Israeli, Palestinian leaders battle growing opposition from within

August 19, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEL AVIV, Israel - The prime minister of Israel and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat found themselves on rare common ground yesterday as they battled growing challenges to their authority from erstwhile supporters.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, speaking here at a convention of his rightist Likud Party, faced down delegates opposed to his plans to withdraw Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and to invite the left-of-center Labor Party into his coalition government.

Arafat, addressing Palestinian legislators in the West Bank city of Ramallah, made a rare admission that he and his aides had made mistakes that have fostered corruption and a near-total breakdown of law and order.

How the two leaders deal with these problems - adamant opposition to dismantling Jewish settlements for Sharon, growing impatience by Palestinians with corruption and chaos for Arafat - will shape whether and how Israel and the Palestinians try to end four years of violence.

By adding the Labor Party to his Cabinet, Sharon would shore up what is now a minority government and presumably guarantee that the Gaza withdrawal plan wins final approval in parliament.

If Arafat carries out reforms demanded by his legislature, he would have to relinquish control of his security forces, a move he is reluctant to make, but one that is required under a U.S.-backed peace plan.

The meetings held by Likud and the Palestinian legislature seemed to mimic each other.

Sharon was heckled by party members, Arafat by Palestinians. Each leader warned that internal strife could wreck important institutions - the Likud Party or the Palestinian Authority.

Arafat, despite saying that he agrees with recommended reforms, has yet to sign 2-year-old legislation that would bring about those changes. And Sharon must decide whether to defy Likud delegates who voted last night to bar him from bringing Labor into his government.

Sharon has repeatedly bucked party members as he embarks on his disengagement plan for Gaza, which includes evacuating four Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He also ignored convention delegates two years ago when he refused their demands to disavow a future Palestinian state.

Last night's vote was not legally binding, but Sharon might be hard pressed to defy his party again. Critic and parliament member Michael Eitan said last night that "Israel might now have to start acting like a democracy."

Likud officials were to meet with Labor today to continue negotiations; it was unclear whether that meeting will now take place.

Demands for unity

Last night, in a 15-minute speech broadcast on Israeli television before the party vote, Sharon made his position clear. "The Likud will conduct negotiations with all Zionist parties for expanding the coalition," he said. "I am demanding today unity in the Likud. I am demanding today unity in the nation."

About 1,200 Likud delegates were present, and by Israeli standards the event was sedate. They crowded aisles and stood on chairs, half screaming, "Arik, king of Israel," using Sharon's nickname, the others yelling, "Yes to Likud, no to Labor."

Organizers threatened to adjourn the event when the shouts drowned out speakers, and a few scuffles broke out. Sharon sat quietly in the front, flanked by a key opponent, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, and an ardent supporter, former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert. The prime minister calmly sipped water as speaker after speaker leveled harsh criticism.

"They want the government, but without us," said Uzi Landau, a Cabinet minister without portfolio, accusing Sharon of splitting his party by wanting to add Labor to his rightist coalition. "You are not here to say `amen' automatically. This government is stable. It has made achievement in many areas. There is no majority to bring it down. Safeguard the nation. Don't let Labor in."

Landau then made a thinly veiled reference to Sharon's previous support of Jewish settlements. Referring to the part of Likud that opposes withdrawal from Gaza, he said: "We, Mr. Prime Minister, don't break our promises."

But Roni Baron, chairman of the parliament's housing committee, told delegates that "under no circumstances should we tie the prime minister's hands. The people chose him as prime minister. You chose him as prime minister. This is one of those times when we should respect his authority."

Sharon said the party discord sets a dangerous precedent and warned against "hatred, voices that threaten civil war."

"This is behavior not befitting the nation or the party," he said. "It is behavior that could bring the Likud to a breakup, or put it in the hands of an extremist or irresponsible coalition."

Admissions by Arafat

Earlier yesterday, Arafat delivered a 90-minute speech that rambled from point to point, blamed Israel for a variety of problems and included his account of the failed peace process.

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