JERUSALEM, May 16 (JTA) — When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak travels to the United States next week, he’ll leave behind faltering peace talks, a government in jeopardy and violent flare-ups with the Palestinians.
Barak hopes his May 21-23 trip will invigorate peace talks with the Palestinians — a goal shared by President Clinton, who wants to achieve a Middle East peace accord before he leaves office.
The prime minister will also use the trip to draw attention to U.S. support for Israel’s planned troop withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
Barak plans to meet with American Jewish leaders, many of whom are as confused and divided about the peace process as Barak’s constituency back home.
The trip comes after Barak secured approval from the Israeli Cabinet and Knesset this week to transfer three Arab villages outside Jerusalem to full Palestinian control. This gesture, which was aimed at building confidence among the Palestinians, may have cost Barak his ruling coalition.
And in a dark convergence of events, the decision Monday to hand the towns to the Palestinians came on the day gunfights erupted between Israeli troops and Palestinian police officers in the worst violence in the territories in two years.
Monday also witnessed the first mass right-wing protest against Barak since he was elected a year earlier. Hours after the Knesset vote, tens of thousands of Jewish settlers converged on Jerusalem’s Zion Square, where Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon told the crowd that the Barak government “has bowed to the Palestinian rioters.”
Earlier that day, demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip spun out of control and took a deadly turn.
Similar protests had taken place on and off for more than a week in the territories. Those earlier protests, marked by repeated clashes between Palestinian stone-throwers and Israeli soldiers firing rubber bullets, had focused on the Palestinian demand that Israel release more prisoners.
On Monday, the protests marked the “nakba” — Arabic for “catastrophe” — as the Palestinians call the May 14, 1948 establishment of the state of Israel.
Israeli officials said the clashes escalated that day when Palestinian snipers joined the stone-throwers, prompting shooting from Israeli soldiers. It is unclear whether Palestinian police were among the original snipers, but they were later seen exchanging fire with Israeli troops.
Palestinian witnesses claimed — in some cases proudly — that the first live bullets had come from Palestinian civilians.
By the end of the day, the clashes — which were at their worst in Ramallah — left at least three Palestinians dead and hundreds more wounded. Fifteen Israeli soldiers were wounded in the violent exchanges, at least two by Palestinian police fire.
Most of the Palestinians were wounded by rubber bullets fired by Israeli troops to disperse rioters throwing Molotov cocktails and stones.
The violence was the worst in the territories in two years, when several Palestinians were killed in clashes during similar disturbances marking the “catastrophe.”
Barak discussed the situation on the phone Monday night with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who Israeli officials said had encouraged the protests.
For their part, Palestinian officials called the street demonstrations a public outpouring of frustration over slow progress in the peace negotiations. But with the volatile turn of events, reports said the Palestinian Authority tried to restore order.
On Tuesday, however, clashes continued in Ramallah and several West Bank towns, but the violence was less intense than the day before.
Tuesday’s confrontations took place as U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross returned to the region and held meetings with both sides in an effort to restore calm and help move peace talks forward.
The already troubled talks appeared to have hit another glitch, with reports that the chief Palestinian negotiator, Yasser Abed Rabbo, had tendered his resignation to Arafat, in anger over his exclusion from back-channel talks Israel and the Palestinians held in Stockholm this week.
Monday’s violence came as the Israeli Cabinet and parliament approved a proposal to transfer the Arab villages of Abu Dis, Al-Azariya and Sawahara outside Jerusalem to total Palestinian self-rule.
Right-wing legislators oppose the idea, saying it will jeopardize Jerusalem. But Barak urged legislators during Monday’s stormy Knesset session to remember that “Jerusalem did not fall because Abu Dis was not part of it.”
The Cabinet voted 15-6 for the proposal, which Barak described as necessary to prevent “stalemate and deterioration” in the negotiations. Barak wants the areas handed over in order to persuade the Palestinians to delay a third Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and instead focus on a final peace agreement.
But the Cabinet decision sparked a coalition crisis, with the hawkish National Religious Party announcing it is was pulling out of the coalition.
“From now, the National Religious Party will act to bring down the government. It will be in the opposition,” said Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy, who announced after the vote he was suspending his participation in the government pending a formal party decision to quit the coalition.
The departure of the five-member NRP faction came as no surprise, since the party, a founder and champion of Jewish settlement, has long protested that Barak’s peace policies went against its ideals.
But the development raised the stakes regarding the future of two other coalition partners, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party and the conservative Yisrael Ba’Aliyah immigrant rights party. A departure by either faction would leave Barak’s government, which until now held 68 seats in the 120-member Knesset, without a parliamentary majority.
Both Shas and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah refrained from taking a clear stand Monday, and the motion passed the Knesset 56-48 with backing from moderate opposition and Arab parties.
Barak said the handover of the Arab villages would be delayed due to Monday’s violence.
“We decided to present the proposal for confirmation but we will delay the execution of the transfer itself until the reasons for today’s violence are clarified,” he told the Knesset.
Meanwhile, Israel on Monday also called on the Palestinian Authority to put on trial Muhammed Deif, the fugitive most wanted by Israel who, reports said, Palestinian security forces apprehended days earlier.