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NEWS ANALYSIS Seeking to salvage peace, eyes turn to Washington — or unity rule

JERUSALEM, March 26 (JTA) — With the Middle East peace process in its deepest crisis since the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords were signed in 1993, all eyes are turning toward Washington to see whether the Clinton administration will be able to salvage it. President Clinton dispatched top Middle East envoy Dennis Ross to the region Wednesday to try to bring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat back to negotiations. At the same time, a widespread sense of Israeli unease in the wake of last week”s suicide bombing at a cafe in Tel Aviv is prompting renewed speculation that a government of national unity is just around the corner. The horror and anguish at last Friday”s outrage is, of course, universal in Israel. Nevertheless, beneath the surface, much of the criticism is focused on the Netanyahu government. Opinion polls show that while a large majority of Israelis support the right, in principle, to build at Har Homa, only a slight majority believe that the government”s decision to exercise that right at this time was justified and wise. Since construction of the new housing project in eastern Jerusalem began last week, Israeli-Palestinian tensions have escalated, culminating in last week”s bombing, which killed three Israelis and wounded dozens of others. This week, Palestinians in some parts of the West Bank took to the streets in violent demonstrations reminiscent of the worst days of the Palestinian uprising from 1987 to 1993. In conversations with ordinary Israelis, one hears — after the bitter condemnations of the bombing and of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat”s failure to prevent it — expressions of doubt as to the government”s handling of the peace process. Whether a national unity government could save the embattled peace process is unclear. But Yediot Achronot, Israel”s largest circulation newspaper, went as far as to offer its readers Tuesday an artist”s version of a unity Cabinet. The portrait included six Likud ministers, six Laborites and six representing the small parties — Shas, the National Religious Party, Yisrael Ba”Aliyah and The Third Way. The paper said Netanyahu planned to translate this drawing into a real-life photograph within two weeks — just as soon as the ongoing police inquiry into the short-lived appointment of Roni Bar-On as attorney general reaches its conclusion, provided that this conclusion does not spell political demise for Netanyahu. Yediot and other Israeli media have closely chronicled a series of private meetings over recent days between Netanyahu and Labor Party leader Shimon Peres. They link those meetings to visits Netanyahu made this week to Shas” spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and to a leading NRP rabbi, Avraham Shapira. He also met with the popular Jerusalem kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie. The prime minister”s aides maintain that the idea of a national unity government was not raised in any of these meetings. But few political pundits believe them. Nor do some of Netanyahu”s Likud followers. The minister of health, Yehoshua Matza, one of the prime minister”s most loyal supporters, confirmed Tuesday that the idea of setting up a unity government was indeed under serious consideration. Matza said the two major parties could reach a common platform in advance of the final-status negotiations with the Palestinians, assuming that the current crisis is resolved and that the peace negotiations resume. He said Likud and Labor could agree on several issues: the unity of Jerusalem, continued Israeli control of the Jordan Valley, retention of the Jewish settlements and opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state. In Labor circles, however, there seems to be — at least for now — much less enthusiasm for the unity scenario. At a stormy meeting of Labor”s Knesset faction Monday, only two members supported the idea, while Peres came under a barrage of criticism from members opposed to the party serving under Netanyahu. “We can”t keep saying that Netanyahu is incapable and stupid — and then not translate those opinions into political action,”” said Avraham Shochat, the former finance minister. “The Likud are just using us,”” warned Ori Orr, the former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. As the Knesset on Tuesday debated two no-confidence motions — the motions later failed — Yossi Sarid, of the left-wing Meretz Party, blamed the prime minister for the deterioration in the political and security situations. For his part, Peres insisted that no unity proposal had been made, and noted that in any event, Labor would want to await the outcome of the Bar-On investigation. He agreed with his critics that it would be far better to defeat Netanyahu than to join him. But given the situation under the new election law, that is not an option that might soon be available to the party. Under the old system, a government could fall with a no-confidence motion and a new government could be created with the backing of a Knesset majority. Under the new election system, initiated just last year, the entire Knesset would have to stand for new elections, making it less likely that Knesset members would want to bring down the government. “Above all, I don”t want to defeat the peace process,”” said Peres, a key architect of the agreements with the Palestinians, known collectively as the Oslo accords. “What I am doing is looking for ways to save it.”” In the meantime, however, many are looking to Washington to do the saving. Reports from Washington and Jerusalem this week said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright might visit the region herself in the near future. But for the time being, Ross, the U.S. envoy to the Middle East, traveled to the region midweek to seek an end to the violence and try to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. Ross was scheduled to meet with Arafat in Rabat, Morocco, on Wednesday night. Arafat, after dodging contact with Clinton administration officials while traveling in Asia, finally accepted a phone call from Albright on Tuesday night and agreed to meet with Ross. A high-profile intervention by Washington would demonstrate that the second Clinton administration, with new faces in some of its key policy-making slots, is not turning its back on Middle East peacemaking, as some Israelis and Palestinians had feared — and as some hard-liners on both sides perhaps secretly hoped. American reactions to the current crisis have been characterized thus far by a certain amount of zig-zagging. Officials in Washington at first denied Israel”s claim, based on intelligence information, that Arafat had effectively given a green light to the fundamentalist Hamas to resume its terrorism. After Friday”s suicide bomb blast, however, U.S. officials publicly backtracked somewhat, demanding that Arafat make clear his opposition to violence. But the U.S. government”s response was indicative of how much international opinion toward Israel has changed. The worldwide popularity enjoyed by the Labor-led government a year ago is not shared by Netanyahu”s government today, despite its brief spell in the sun immediately after the signing of the Hebron deal in January. The brutal attack in Tel Aviv on the eve of Purim did not generate anything like the outpouring of international sympathy that followed the spate of Hamas suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv exactly one year ago. While foreign governments have been unanimous in decrying the ghastly act of violence itself, many overseas politicians add, in their public comments, the warning that Israeli “settlement-building”” in eastern Jerusalem is virtually certain to prejudice the entire peace process and trigger more violence by Palestinian extremists.