JERUSALEM, Oct. 31 (JTA) – A lot remains unclear about Israel’s political, military and diplomatic situation.
But when opposition leader Ariel Sharon emerged Monday night from a meeting that Prime Minister Ehud Barak held with party leaders in the Knesset, Sharon made at least one thing clear: His talks with Barak about forming a national unity government are over.
Signaling that he had given up on forging a political partnership with Barak, Sharon said the premier had “surrendered” to the doves within his party.
While Sharon was blaming doves like Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid for the failure of the effort to create a national unity government, everyone in the Knesset knew that the blame – or credit, depending on one’s political sentiments – lay squarely with the fervently Orthodox Shas Party.
Shas officials signed an agreement Monday to provide a parliamentary “safety net” for Barak’s government for a period of one month, while the state of national emergency continues.
Shas members, who hold 17 seats in the 120-member Knesset, had said they would only back Barak if he abandons his “secular revolution” reform program – a set of legislative reforms the premier had proposed recently to weaken the hold of the Orthodox establishment over such matters as Sabbath observance.
Shas signed the agreement after Barak met this demand.
Under the terms of the agreement, Shas will not lend its hand to opposition motions of no confidence in the government.
Nor will it support legislation during the coming month designed to dissolve the Knesset and fix a date for early elections.
This provides nothing less than a life-support mechanism for Barak, whose government lost its parliamentary majority when three parties, including Shas, walked out during the summer to protest July’s Camp David summit.
Those defections left Barak heading a minority government that had the backing of only 30 legislators.
This is why Shas was “blamed” for the failure of the unity government talks.
With Shas’ support, Barak no longer needed a partnership with Sharon to secure his political future. Officials from Meretz, another former coalition partner, were in effect a party to the month-long accord with Shas, though they were not a formal signatory.
Knowledgeable sources said Meretz leaders were involved in every stage of the Labor-Shas talks, which took place concurrently with the prime minister’s series of sessions with Sharon about a unity government.
The speculation in Jerusalem now centers on whether the Labor-Shas agreement will be extended into a Labor-Shas-Meretz agreement.
In other words, will Barak’s temporary reprieve evolve into a more lasting stabilization of his government? Political observers were quick to note that Shas’ only condition for the pact, the freeze on the secular revolution, was something the secular Meretz Party had accepted in past coalitions with Shas under the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and last year under Barak.
Given the state of emergency, they say, Meretz could easily accept again. In one of his attacks on Barak on Monday, Sharon said, “He thinks symbolic shows of force are effective.”
This was perhaps his most outspoken criticism of Barak since the crisis with the Palestinians erupted a month ago.
He was responding to Barak’s decision Monday night to order helicopter strikes on Palestinian positions in the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Nablus, and in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.
In those strikes, the helicopters fired missiles at the empty offices of the Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement and of its armed militia, the Tanzim.
Army sources made it clear that the attacks were intended specifically not to cause loss of life, but rather to serve as a warning in the wake of two killings of Jews in Jerusalem on Monday.
“We put those missiles in through particular windows of empty building at night,” said Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh. “The message is that we can do so with equal accuracy when the buildings are occupied during the day.”
Sharon scoffed at this approach.
He indicated, for the first time publicly, that he thought Barak wrong for not having sent in the helicopters during two incidents in October – when an Israeli border policeman bled to death inside the Joseph’s Tomb compound near Nablus during a battle with Palestinian militias, and again during the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah.
“I, too, oppose escalation,” Sharon asserted. “But when lives are concerned, there should be no other consideration.”
Until now, Sharon has deliberately confined his criticism to his private meetings with Barak.
His outspokenness Monday signaled his clear intention to take a harder line against Barak now that the unity option had been abandoned.
This was evident when Sharon said at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session that the premier’s peace policies had led the nation into a “trap.”
And it was evident again Tuesday, when Sharon vowed to bring down Barak’s “failed government.” Sharon was plainly at pains not to attack Shas, even though, as others in the Likud Party wryly conceded, Shas had outsmarted and betrayed the Likud.
But Sharon’s attacks on Labor and Meretz doves for the collapse of the unity talks was not without justification.
Just as Sharon would have faced a tough battle within his own party to push through a Labor-Likud unity accord, so, too, Barak would have come up against determined opposition in the Labor ranks.
For his part, Beilin had said publicly he would resign as justice minister if Sharon were given the veto powers he’d demanded as his price for joining the proposed unity government.
Other Cabinet doves may have followed suit, and their pressure on the prime minister certainly helped sway him away from the unity option.
Now, with the Shas-Meretz reprieve package in place, Barak can, if the situation on the ground allows, turn again to diplomacy.
During the unity government negotiations, Sharon had demanded that the premier publicly retract the concessions he offered the Palestinians at the Camp David summit.
Barak, bolstered by the doves, refused to do so. On Monday, in his speech opening the new Knesset winter session, Barak pointedly recalled his positions at Camp David, implying that if peace negotiations resumed they would still be on the table.
This implication will be important if, as was expected here this week, Barak journeys to Washington in mid-November for talks with President Clinton.
The president is suggesting that Arafat, too, come for separate but parallel talks. Israel’s acting foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, was due in Washington this week for meetings which, to some extent, will serve to prepare the way for Clinton’s initiative.
Interestingly, both Palestinians and Israelis are embracing a theory that the lame-duck Clinton, free of electoral considerations, will be a more effective facilitator and mediator – and perhaps a more determined wielder of American influence – than in the pre-election period.
In an indication that he is now ready to return to diplomacy now that his domestic standing has been strengthened, Barak on Monday approved a proposal to have former Prime Minister Shimon Peres set up a one-on-one meeting with Arafat.
The premier gave the go-ahead after receiving a moving personal appeal from Leah Rabin, widow of the leader assassinated five years ago, to make use of Peres’ proven peacemaking abilities.