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Barak  and Israel  face tough challenges

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JERUSALEM, July 19 (JTA) — As Israeli and Palestinian leaders cut through decades of sacred axioms and slogans in an effort to forge an agreement at Camp David this week, Israeli society dealt with the possibility that it may face the toughest-ever challenge to its cohesion.

For the hundreds of thousands of citizens who demonstrated Sunday night in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square against Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s peace policy, there was likely some relief Wednesday, when it appeared that the Israeli side was giving up on the talks.

For hundreds of thousands of others — who were planning a demonstration for this coming Sunday to support Barak — Wednesday’s reports likely dashed their hopes that Camp David would bear fruit.

On Wednesday, President Clinton sent the talks into overtime when he announced he was postponing by a day his trip to a meeting of industrialized nations in Japan.

Just the same, within hours it appeared that Barak’s worst-case scenario was evolving.

A week after setting out for Washington in the hope of reaching a historic agreement with the Palestinians, the Israeli leader appeared poised to return home empty-handed.

Clinton received a letter from Barak on Wednesday that reportedly informed the president of his intention to leave the summit because the Palestinians lacked the “true commitment” needed “to make historic decisions.”

After Israeli media reported the letter’s contents, a spokesman for Clinton confirmed that the president had indeed received a letter from Barak, but he would not discuss its contents.

Earlier in the day, Barak’s coalition whip, Ophir Pines, said the premier had reached the conclusion that the Palestinians were not acting as a “true partner” to peace.

“The prime minister intends to return to Israel with the entire team of Cabinet ministers, Knesset members and professionals accompanying him,” Pines said Wednesday.

Pines said he also understood that the Clinton administration had reached the same conclusion: The Palestinian Authority was not able to come to an agreement with Israel.

“All the American bridging proposals were rejected by the Palestinians,” he said.

Indeed, during an interview Wednesday in New York with JTA, Cabinet Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior said he had been told to have his bags packed and be ready to leave from Washington on Wednesday evening.

While Melchior, the minister for Israeli society and world Jewish communities, made it clear that the situation was fluid and that everything could change “in a minute,” Palestinian officials were likewise saying an accord appeared unlikely — for which they, predictably, blamed Israel.

For the past week, Israeli, Palestinian and American officials have been engaged in what was described as a final, high-stakes bid to try to reach a final peace accord.

A heavy news blackout imposed by the Americans prevented any substantive information on the content of the deliberations from trickling out. This resulted at times in simultaneous and contradictory reports on progress or deadlock in the negotiations.

On the agenda were the most difficult and contested issues of the negotiations – Jerusalem, refugees, final borders, water and Jewish settlements.

Earlier reports said Barak had conveyed his willingness to hand up to 95 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians and was open to some proposals on the refugee issue.

But over the course of the week, Jerusalem apparently emerged as the main sticking point — representing a so-called “red line” for both sides.

Barak insists that Jerusalem remain the united, sovereign capital of Israel. Arafat has demanded its eastern half for the capital of a Palestinian state.

Israeli reports speculated Tuesday that the sides might be on the verge of clinching an understanding on the issue — a compromise under which Israel would annex Jewish settlement areas around the city, while the Palestinians would assume some sort of control, short of sovereignty, over the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

But by Wednesday, Arafat reportedly had hardened his stance on Jerusalem — which sources said had led Barak to conclude that he was not dealing with a real partner to the peace process.

As if in a signal of the next phase to come, Israel Radio quoted the source as saying that Barak is now warning the Palestinians against taking any unilateral steps — a reference to their plans to declare statehood on Sept. 13, with or without an accompanying agreement.

At the same time, the source cautioned against prematurely declaring the summit a failure, and suggested a “way out” of the crisis might yet be found.

Meanwhile, in Israel, the opposition was revving up for the next political battle.

Barak returns to a changed political landscape. Three coalition parties pulled out of the government prior to Barak’s departure for Washington, costing him his parliamentary majority.

In two weeks, the Knesset is slated to vote on two bills that would force early elections.

And in a taste of what may come, the Knesset on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to opposition initiatives — one that would require a special majority to approve a national referendum on any peace agreement and one that calls for the annexation of all Jewish settlements in the territories if the Palestinians unilaterally declare an independent state.

No matter what emerges from Camp David, the future of Israeli- Palestinian relations are likely to continue to rock Israeli society.

If the country is called upon to make a fateful decision — either by a referendum on an future agreement or with a response to a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood — possible provocations by extremists is a worry.

Whether Jewish or Arab, the extremists could instantaneously turn the West Bank into a raging conflagration.

In this respect, Jewish and Palestinian extremists are, perhaps paradoxically, in the same camp — the anti-agreement camp.

Violent altercations between them, or acts of violence perpetrated by either of them against innocent civilians, are the great danger that will loom over any agreement.

A mild taste of what could come was experienced over the weekend in the West Bank town of Hebron. Jewish settlers and local Palestinians clashed for two days after a settler girl claimed she was sexually assaulted by a Palestinian.

The army was slow to move in and separate the two sides in the tinderbox town. There were no fatalities, although some injuries were sustained by Palestinians, settlers and soldiers.

Had there been any fatalities, the rioting could quickly have spread to engulf the whole town.

Observers point to large pockets of deep distrust of Arafat among the Palestinian populace — in addition to the consistent opposition led by Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas.

This week the sheik issued a call to Arafat to break off the talks, return home and rejoin the armed struggle against the Zionist state.

There could be no real solution to the conflict, Yassin asserted, other than the elimination of Israel.

No such incitement has been uttered publicly on the Israeli side.

But Israeli security officials know there are extremists in some of the settlements, especially those Barak may be willing to cede to the Palestinians.

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