JERUSALEM, June 22 (JTA) — As the deadline draws ever closer for Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak to present his government for Knesset approval, his coalition negotiations are taking some surprising turns. In the latest twist, Barak has resumed talks with a potential partner that for several weeks now has appeared destined to be left out in the political cold — the Likud Party. In a surprise move, Barak held a series of private discussions this week with Likud”s acting chairman, outgoing Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who was Barak”s army mentor years ago. The talks with Sharon came after Barak — who has until July 8 to present his government to the Knesset — encountered trouble wooing the fervently Orthodox Shas Party into the government he is forming. Sharon sounded a determinedly hopeful note Tuesday, telling reporters he believed there could be “real partnership” in policymaking between Barak and himself. But other Likud figures were more circumspect, and outside observers cautioned against any premature conclusion that a deal was in the offing. Officials with the leftist Meretz Party, previously signaling that they were ready to sign a coalition agreement with Barak, are now pulling back, not wishing to be a “fifth wheel” — as party leader Yossi Sarid put it — in a Barak government that includes Sharon. The other four wheels would “all be pulling in different directions,” Sarid added sourly. What was Barak”s sudden sea change all about? Why, after close to a month of silence between them, are Barak”s One Israel bloc and the Likud talking again? It had seemed, after all, that both sides were reconciled to the imminent formation of a Barak-led government without Likud. If Barak were more of a wheeler-dealer, and less of a straight-shooting military type, the answer would be self-apparent. He was bringing Likud back into the loop, one would naturally assume, in order to bring pressure to bear on his other, likelier coalition partners — chief among them Shas. But this is unlikely. During the past several weeks of slow, frustrating and largely empty negotiations, even Barak”s critics have had to admit that he is not a run-of-the-mill, jaded political operator, not one to make high-profile overtures just for the psychological or tactical impact they may have on a third party. If Barak is talking with Sharon, say those who know him, he means what he says. He intends to make Likud a serious offer, they say, whether or not he eventually can bring Shas around and create around the One Israel-Shas-Meretz axis a numerically impressive coalition including some 77 of the Knesset”s 120 legislators. Why, specifically, is Barak wooing Sharon? Barak s pledge after the May 17 election to be “everyone”s prime minister”” still resounds, at least in his own ears. He genuinely wants the broadest-based government possible, believing that given the dimensions of his own victory in the race for prime minister, his voice in all matters of high policy will not effectively be challenged. And on the issues of peace policy, Barak believes a broad-based government will make the best deals with Syria and the Palestinians and will carry any agreements easily through the national referendums he has promised to hold before each of those treaties is ratified. But what of Sharon? What does he hope to gain? In Sarid”s mind, at any rate, Sharon”s intentions can only spell mischief. For One Israel peaceniks, too, Sharon”s participation in the government spells ongoing attempts to undermine, derail or at least slow the peace process. But there may be another reading, and, if the One Israel-Likud talks move forward positively, Barak will be trying to persuade his key supporters that it is tenable — despite Sharon”s long record as a hard-liner and an opponent of the Oslo peace process. Sharon, by this theory, has come to terms with Barak”s victory. The course of the coalition negotiations, though slow and stuttering, is leading inexorably to the creation of a government committed to bringing Oslo to full fruition and to signing a land-for-peace deal with the Syrians that would include an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Barak”s red-carpet reception earlier this month for Syrian President Hafez Assad”s biographer, British journalist Patrick Seale, was a transparent signal — and intended as such — that the new government is ready to resume serious negotiations with Damascus. All this being the case, Sharon”s position now is that it is better for Likud to be in the government — where it can affect policymaking as much as it can — rather than watch, impotent and frustrated, from the sidelines. The third alternative, toppling Barak, simply does not exist and will not be available during the next crucial year or two. Cynics within and outside Likud will link this pragmatic attitude on the part of Sharon to his candidacy in the Likud leadership primaries, due to be held in the fall. As a senior minister in the new government, Sharon would undoubtedly have the advantage over his main rival, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert. This is especially the case in view of Olmert”s central campaign theme: that he is the party”s moderate candidate for the future while Sharon is the unreconstructed hard-liner. But such internal party considerations aside, Sharon may well want to make a contribution during the process of shaping the final borders of the state. At 71, and with a long trail of controversy behind him, Sharon, similar to Moshe Dayan a generation ago, may want to end his career as a peacemaker. A seat in the Barak Cabinet, he may feel, is the only practical way to achieve that. But can Sharon bring the rest of his much reduced party along with him, if this is indeed his frame of mind as the talks with Barak resume? Can Barak, for his part, quiet the mounting concerns and doubts among his own doves? The coming two weeks will provide the answers to these intriguing questions. Meanwhile, what has happened to the party that Barak seemed to be wooing these past few weeks while Likud appeared sidelined? The talks between Barak”s One Israel negotiators and Shas seemed to hit a major snag Monday evening, when Shas officials dug their in heels over a demand that their party retain the Interior Ministry — a stance opposed with equal firmness by One Israel. Some Shas insiders are charging that Aryeh Deri, forced to resign last week as Shas” political leader, is still active behind the scenes, jacking up the party”s negotiating demands in order to foil an evolving coalition agreement with One Israel. These sources speak of deep and dramatic fissures opening up in Shas in the wake of Deri”s resignation. They say that Deri”s supporters — among them Rabbi David Yosef, son of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef — are refusing to accept Deri”s departure and have launched what amounts to a rebellion against his father. In the opposing camp within Shas, outgoing Minister of Labor and Welfare Eliyahu Yishai, inspired by Ovadia Yosef, is pushing for an early deal with Barak. His position is seen by Deri loyalists as a betrayal of their hero, and there are murmurings and even threats of wholesale defections emerging from the Shas rank-and-file This provided the background to Likud”s emergence from the shadows. Without the knowledge of his own negotiating team, Barak headed Monday night straight from Shas to Sharon. The two men talked late into the night, and the next day their lieutenants reopened the long-stalled formal negotiations between their two parties.
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