Top Israel parties coming to terms

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM - Israel's prime minister-elect, Ariel Sharon, moved closer to forming a coalition with the battered Labor Party last night amid increasing signs that the man he defeated, Ehud Barak, would stay on as defense minister.

In negotiations with Sharon's right-wing Likud Party yesterday, Labor abandoned the goal of trying to reach a permanent peace with the Palestinians, instead accepting Sharon's idea of a long-term interim agreement offering improved security for Israel and some economic benefits to the Palestinians, Israel Radio reported.


Labor also accepted the Likud position on settlements: No new Jewish settlements will be erected in the West Bank and Gaza, but existing ones would be allowed to expand according to "natural growth."

"We can live with it," said Ofir Pines-Paz, who heads the Labor faction in parliament. Additional understandings about how to deal with the Palestinians were kept under wraps, according to Israeli media.


"There's definitely progress," said Dahlia Itzik, a minister in Barak's outgoing government.

The agreement, if it stands, offers Sharon a major boost in forming a durable government, forestalling the threat of another set of elections in a few months and a new challenge to his leadership by former Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Having center-left Labor in his government also helps Sharon soften his belligerent reputation in the eyes of other nations, whose reaction to his election ranged from wariness to horror.

To get it, he was prepared to offer Labor two of the three most important ministries - Defense, Foreign Affairs and Finance - and offered the defense portfolio to Barak.

Barak, who announced after his resounding defeat last week that he was quitting as a member of Parliament and leader of the Labor Party, has shown signs of second thoughts ever since, insisting on being the one who controls negotiations with Likud.

Last night, he got a major assist in changing his mind from Israel's president, Moshe Katzev. In a prime-time television and radio interviews, the president urged Barak to join the Sharon coalition as defense minister, saying, "I definitely call upon Ehud Barak, as chairman of the Labor Party, as former prime minister, to join a government headed by Ariel Sharon."

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who shared a Nobel Prize for reaching the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, hopes to be tapped as foreign minister.

Increasing violence


Negotiations over a unity government picked up momentum as violence between Israelis and Palestinians escalated to its highest level in several weeks.

Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian worker, Ziad Abu Sway, when they opened fire on a minibus carrying Palestinian laborers near Bethlehem, according to Palestinian witnesses.

In another incident, Atef Ahmed al-Nabulsi was shot near Ramallah and taken by Israeli troops to an army base, where he died. Palestinian medics said Nabulsi was Palestinian but the army said he was an Israeli Arab. The army said the vehicle Nabulsi was driving did not stop at a checkpoint, even after warning shots were fired.

Several other Palestinians were injured in each incident.

Sunday, Palestinian gunmen killed a Jewish settler, Tsahi Sasson, 35, firing on his car on a road from Jerusalem into the West Bank.

At least 40 wounded


In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, a lengthy gunbattle raged into last evening between Israeli soldiers guarding the Gush Khatif cluster of settlements and about 50 Palestinian gunmen firing from the Khan Younis refugee camp. About 40 Palestinians were reported wounded.

The Bethlehem branch of Fatah, the main Palestinian political movement, vowed to prevent Sharon from achieving his goal of ensuring safety for some 200,000 Jewish settlers living in the occupied territories.

"The Sharon era will not be that of stability and tranquillity as the criminal Sharon claims," the group said in a statement.

Explaining why Labor had abandoned, for now, the goal of a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians, Dahlia Itzik said, "Our plan didn't get a renewed mandate. We lost also partly because of the plan."

Last week's overwhelming defeat and Barak's announced resignation have thrown the Labor Party into turmoil. Yossi Beilin, one of its most prominent peace activists, has loudly opposed Labor's joining a coalition and talked about leaving the party. Shlomo Ben Ami, the current foreign minister, said he wouldn't serve in a coalition government and said Labor should rebuild itself while in opposition.

Successor to Barak


Meanwhile, there's a battle over succeeding Barak, should he quit, with Parliament Speaker Avraham Burg vying against Ministers Haim Ramon and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Of these, only Ben-Eliezer has announced his candidacy.

Barak helped pave the way for a coalition last week when he announced that any understanding reached with the Palestinians based on his own proposals - which offered the Palestinians most of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem - would not bind the new government.

Barak has said in the past that his heart is on the right, while his head is on the left.