Barak has domestic issues on his mind


JERUSALEM, Sept. 10 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had just spent three days holding meetings at the U.N. Millennium Summit in New York on the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

So why was he using media interviews to talk about public transportation and El Al flights on the Sabbath?

For observers in Jerusalem, it said much about how the prime minister felt about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Despite declarations by Palestinian officials over the weekend that intensive talks with Israel would resume this week, aides close to Barak have been playing down expectations unless the future of Jerusalem can be resolved.

The chances of that happening seemed further dimmed after Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat made clear during his meetings in New York that the Palestinians are not interested in anything short of full sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

Just the same, Palestinian officials decided not to take a major step that could jeopardize the peace process. During a meeting Sunday, the mini- Parliament of the PLO postponed a declaration of statehood until at least Nov. 15.

The widely expected decision by the 129-member Palestinian Central Council to delay the declaration from the previously set Sept. 13 date came after a second and final day of meetings in the Gaza Strip.

Barak’s clear and public focus on the domestic agenda has been viewed by some as positioning himself for the next political battle — at home — in the wake of a failed peace process.

Faced with the task of rebuilding his coalition, Barak has made clear that he will seek a secular coalition, possibly one that includes the Likud opposition.

Some of the measures he has recently mentioned — a constitution, civil marriages, national service — are opposed by the religious political parties, including his former coalition partner, Shas.

His call for instituting public transportation and El Al flights on the Sabbath has threatened to alienate his remaining One Israel bloc partner — the Meimad religious movement.

Cabinet Minister Michael Melchior said over the weekend the religious movement would consider such moves a violation of the coalition agreement with Barak on matters of religion and state.

The Likud Party has dismissed Barak’s proposals as a “last-straw gimmick” of a failing government.

Though it may support some of the measures in principle, the Likud maintains that its official stand is to focus on changing the current government, not joining it.

Some members of Barak’s One Israel bloc believe Barak went too far with his proposals about Sabbath transportation.

Sources in the party were quoted by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz as saying the steps contradict the Labor Party platform and a consensus within the party supporting the religious status quo.

They added that internal party surveys indicated that the majority of members support continuing the “Jewish” character of the state.

However, Transportation Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak of the Center Party defended the proposals.

Noting that El Al flew on the Sabbath until 1982, and that public transportation does indeed operate on the Sabbath in some parts of Israel, he told Israel Army Radio the proposals were drawn up to meet the needs of the population.

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