JERUSALEM, Feb. 13 (JTA) – A national unity government appears increasingly likely as envoys from the Likud and Labor parties work to overcome some snags in negotiations.

Both Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon and outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak appear determined to forge a unity coalition that will remain in power until the end of the Knesset’s term in November 2003.

The Palestinian rejection of President Clinton’s peace proposals has made it relatively easy for Israel’s two major parties to set aside their differences over the shape of a final peace deal and agree on a platform vague enough for each to accept.

According to leaks from the two parties, they have so far agreed to the following guidelines for a unity government:

• It will be committed to advancing a peace involving “painful compromises” by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority;

• It will be bound by previously signed agreements, but not by proposals considered during negotiations that fell short of an accord;

• It will work toward interim peace deals with the Palestinians, rather than the comprehensive agreement sought by Barak and insisted on by the Palestinians; and

• It will not build new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but will allow existing settlements to expand in line with “natural population growth.”

Potential pitfalls in the negotiations were avoided by vagueness and omission on key points.

As a result, there is no specific reference – at least in the leaked versions – to the future of Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods. Likud officials had demanded an explicit commitment to keep the entire city under Israeli control.

Nor is there a call to dismantle isolated settlements. Labor had wanted this, but the pro-settler National Religious Party has threatened not to join a unity government if such provisions are included, and the Likud does not want to lose any of its “natural partners” because of a unity government.

By midweek, the unity negotiations had slowed somewhat. In part, this slowdown was due to Barak’s demand that the government’s platform say that Israel will agree to the creation of a Palestinian state.

In the past, Sharon has said that he would not oppose a Palestinian state, but has set conditions for such a state that Labor does not accept. Likud negotiators in the unity talks were reluctant to commit to any form of Palestinian state.

If a unity government is established, it seems likely that the Cabinet will contain eight Likud and eight Labor ministers, and some 10 other ministers from the religious and rightist parties and from the Russian immigrant Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party.

Sharon has offered Labor two of the three top portfolios – defense, foreign affairs and finance – but key Likudniks are urging Sharon not to cede finance, with its vast power over government expenditures and policy implementation in the other ministries.

Given the relative ease with which negotiators are overcoming or setting aside the parties’ ideological differences, attention has turned to the personalities involved, especially to Barak’s role.

Some Laborites raised their eyebrows when the defeated prime minister insisted on running the party’s negotiations with Likud – just days after he told the nation last week, on election night, that he would leave the Knesset and resign as Labor leader when Sharon took office.

They raised those eyebrows even further when it emerged that – his resignation notwithstanding – Barak was considering an offer to be Sharon’s defense minister.

That exacerbated the tension between Barak and Labor’s elder statesman, Shimon Peres.

Peres is still fuming over Barak’s refusal to step down during the election campaign to allow Peres to represent Labor, even though polls were predicting a devastating defeat for Barak and a close race between Sharon and Peres.

Peres supporters this week were trying to insert themselves into the coalition negotiations, openly flouting Barak’s authority over the party.

When the media on Monday caught Peres himself at the Jerusalem Hilton Hotel, where the unity negotiations were taking place, Peres said he had merely come “for a rest.”

Peres has said he wants the foreign affairs portfolio in a unity government, and will accept nothing else.

But some observers say he would take defense if Barak decides – or is persuaded – to make good on his resignation.

Looming over the negotiations is the shadow of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains the most popular politician in the country, according to polls.

A key Netanyahu supporter, Likud legislator Yisrael Katz, convened a meeting of Likud Central Committee members this week to protest Sharon’s offer of the defense portfolio to Barak.

Katz argued that Barak already has proved a total failure in the post, which he held simultaneously with the premiership.

The real reason, political commentators said, is that Katz, and presumably Netanyahu, believe a Sharon-Barak partnership would have a good chance of staying in power for the rest of the Knesset’s term.

Netanyahu, who declined to run for premier on the grounds that the present Knesset is too fragmented to be governable, had said he expects new elections for both prime minister and Knesset before the end of this year.

Political commentators say Sharon and Barak are bound by a common desire to thwart any potential Netanyahu comeback.

Of course, that desire won’t make it into a unity government’s policy platform. But it will nevertheless be there, commentators say, between every line.

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