Political lifeline for Barak leaves peace option open

Ultra-Orthodox Shas party offers four-week conditional support to Israeli leader.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's political skills have come under harsh attack over the past few months, but the former general is getting better at buying time.

This week the influential Shas party, which mainly represents ultra-Orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern origin, agreed to provide Mr. Barak with some desperately needed parliamentary support - for the next four weeks.

To finesse the party's backing, the prime minister has had to shelve his recently unveiled plans for a "secular revolution" - a package of policies Shas opposes - and to provide additional funding for schools supported by the party. But at least he has a month of breathing room to address the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

Barak's reprieve means that for now there will be no "national unity" government that would have put Barak in partnership with the conservative Likud party, which opposes the prime minister's strategy for obtaining peace with the Palestinians.

Opposition moves limited

After in-depth talks with Likud leader Ariel Sharon, Barak turned on a dime as the Israeli parliament reconvened after a three-month recess on Monday. In his speech to legislators the prime minister didn't even mention the prospect of joining forces with the Likud opposition.

Now Mr. Sharon is left holding an empty bag. Despite pronouncing Barak unfit to lead Israel and describing his leadership style as "anarchy," Sharon conceded to reporters yesterday that he doesn't think "it's a good thing to have elections now."

If Sharon and Likud supporters set their minds to the task, they would likely be able to force elections. But opposition parties often refrain from such action since voters sometimes don't appreciate the dumping of even a weak leader, especially if they feel their security is in question.

In terms of the gossamer-frail set of diplomatic links known as the peace process, Sharon's exclusion from the government seems a positive development.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Barak ally Shimon Peres, a former prime minister, were expected to meet Wednesday or Thursday - the first such one-on-one contact between two senior leaders since sustained violence broke out between Israelis and Palestinians in late September. Top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are also set to have meetings with US and UN officials this week.

Netanyahu's strong popularity

If Sharon had been able to forge a unity government on his terms - veto power over decisions related to the peace negotiations and a disavowal of the proposals Barak made at talks held at Camp David in July - even these tentative steps toward renewed dialogue would probably not be taking place.

Barak's own position remains extremely tenuous. The man he defeated in elections last year, Benjamin Netanyahu, is showing all the signs of preparing for an attempted comeback.

Mr. Netanyahu's evident ambitions, and his strong support among voters and the Likud party, underlie Sharon's attempts to insert himself into the government. When elections come to pass, the Likud may very well select Netanyahu as its leader, so Sharon may have been trying to forestall what may be inevitable.

But with the Shas' temporary support, and help from the left-wing Meretz party and his own Labor legislators, Barak can attempt to revive the strategy he has pursued: comprehensive peace with the Palestinians as a path to political greatness.

It will not be easy. Although Shas has backed Barak in the past it's support for the prime minister's brand of peacemaking has always been in question.

"We will immediately withdraw the four-week safety net ... [if Barak] goes to the United States to resume negotiations on the basis of the Camp David arrangements," Shas leader Eli Yishai told public radio on Tuesday.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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