Barak tries to cobble unity government

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JERUSALEM, Oct. 23 (JTA) – Israel’s major political parties were talking about forming an emergency unity government this week as violence continued in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak asked the Likud Party to join him in a unity government, but met initial resistance. Knesset Member Limor Livnat said the offer was not “serious.”

Meanwhile the leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, Eli Yishai, said his party would not join a unity government, but would consider joining “an emergency Cabinet for a limited time.”

Barak was also facing strong criticism within his own party’s ranks for his statement over the weekend that Israel was taking a “timeout” from the peace process.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres told the Voice of Israel on Monday that Israel cannot ignore the Oslo and Camp David agreements and could not detach itself from the peace process.

“When there is shooting, one must return the fire,” said Peres, “but one must continue the peace process.”

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat responded to Barak’s call for a “timeout” in peace talks by saying that anyone blocking the Palestinians’ path to a state can “go to hell.”

Israel tightened its closure of population centers in the West Bank. Palestinians threatened to break the blockade on Tuesday by staging massive demonstrations to confront the soldiers.

The official Palestinian publication Al-Hayat al-Jadida published detailed instructions on how to stage demonstrations to break closures, particularly in the Jerusalem area.

Meanwhile, gunfire was heated Sunday night. Israeli gunships caused power outages when they rocketed the Palestinian village of Beit Jalla, the area from which Palestinians fired their machine guns into the nearby southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.

Palestinians continued attacks against Israeli targets, both army and settlers, throughout the territories.

Palestinians fired shots at an Israel Defense Force checkpoint near the Jewish community in Hebron, lightly wounding one soldier, Israel Army Radio reported. There were also reports of shots being fired at Israeli forces Monday at Mount Eval, the area where a bus carrying settlers was attacked last week.

“The situation is really deteriorating. The worst hasn’t happened yet,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Reuters.

Israel shut down the Gaza airport because Palestinian policemen there were armed, which is a violation of Israeli-Palestinian agreements, sources told Israel Radio. Meanwhile, part of the Jordan Valley’s main highway was closed because of burning tires.

The army warned it would hit back harder if provoked.

Brig. Gen. Ya’acov Zigdon, a senior officer at the IDF’s central command, warned Monday that the Palestinians intended to escalate the situation in Gilo even further.

Zigdon told Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who visited the neighborhood Monday, that the attackers in Beit Jalla were not local residents, but people from outside the neighborhood.

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