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Unity talks moving forward


JERUSALEM, Feb. 12 (JTA) – Days after his landslide victory, Israeli Prime Ministerelect Ariel Sharon is pressing ahead with efforts to form a national unity government that could advance peace efforts.

The Likud and Labor parties launched a second round of coalition talks Sunday, but it remained unclear if the two parties would be able to overcome ideological differences and form a unity government.

Representatives from each side signaled cautious optimism as they met at a Jerusalem hotel to discuss the unity proposal.

Cabinet minister Shimon Peres, who is not part of the Labor negotiating team, applauded Sharon‚s offer that Labor choose two out of the three senior portfolios – defense, foreign affairs and finance.

“The Likud proposal that we take two of the three most central portfolios is very serious,” said Peres, who favors a national unity government.

Asked by Israel Radio what portfolio he would consider for himself, Peres responded, “only foreign affairs.”

The presence of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Peres in his Cabinet would provide Sharon with much-needed credibility for his political agenda when it comes to dealing with cautious western governments and hostile Arab regimes.

Sharon offered the defense portfolio to outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak when they met last Friday, but sources close to Barak said he will probably decline.

Just the same, the two met again on Sunday for what was described as a “politicalsecurity” update.

The unity talks could be hampered by the succession battle within Labor following Barak‚s decision to resign as party leader, and because of mounting tensions between Barak and Peres over who will set the tone for the coalition negotiations.

Barak has demanded that he be solely responsible for Labor‚s delegation.

Labor negotiators have several points they want met before joining a unity government:

o a commitment from Sharon not to build new settlements;

o agreement to the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state; and,

o transfer of isolated Jewish settlements into larger settlement blocs.

Reuven Rivlin, a Likud official, said Sharon will not agree to dismantle any of the 144 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“God forbid that we should say that a Jew who has been brought there on a mission for all of us, and with full Zionist intentions, should be evacuated,” Rivlin told Israel Radio.

Sharon has yet to provide a detailed outline of his vision for Middle East peace efforts.

But in an interview with the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot last Friday, he said he preferred to pursue an extended nonbelligerency agreement with the Palestinians instead of a final peace accord.

Sharon also reiterated that he does not intend to negotiate with the Palestinians as long as violence continues.

On Monday, Israeli troops and armed Palestinians clashed in several locations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, continuing a heavy Palestinian assault launched the previous night in the Bethlehem area. Two Palestinians were killed and three others wounded in separate clashes with Israeli troops.

Also on Monday, the Palestinians fired an anti-tank missile at a building shared by Israeli and Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip. The missile hit a building used by Palestinian officials, but caused no injuries. This was the first time the Palestinians fired this type of missile, Israel‚s Army Radio reported.

On Sunday, an Israeli driver on a main road linking Jerusalem to the Etzion Bloc of West Bank settlements was killed when he was shot in the head by gunmen in Beit Jalla, a Palestinian town next to Bethlehem. Israeli ambulance workers who came to the man‚s aid also came under fire.

In addition, on Sunday evening Palestinians fired at the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo for the first time in nearly a month. Soldiers guarding Rachel‚s Tomb in the Bethlehem area also came under fire from Palestinian gunmen in a nearby refugee camp.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Cabinet approved Barak‚s statement that the next Israeli government is not bound by proposals put forward during earlier negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Just before Sunday‚s unanimous vote, Barak presented the ministers with copies of letters to this effect that he sent to President Bush and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Arab governments demand that Sharon resume negotiations from where they left off under Barak.

Last week, the Bush administration formally abandoned the peace proposals that President Clinton put forward, saying they no longer are on the table.

At Sunday‚s meeting, the head of Israel‚s Shin Bet domestic security service told the Cabinet there are urgent warnings that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Palestinian militias plan to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel.

Avi Dichter also said that only Arafat is capable of controlling the groups.

At the meeting, Barak expressed concern over the firing of a mortar shell into the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip, the second such attack in recent weeks.

No one was hurt in the incident Saturday night, but Israeli security forces called it an escalation of the ongoing violence.

On Sunday morning, a roadside bomb exploded as an Israeli convoy drove along a road near the Kfar Darom settlement in Gaza, but there were no reports of casualties.

Also on Sunday, a Palestinian military court in Hebron sentenced a member of the Palestinian security forces to death for allegedly providing Israel with information on the deployment of Palestinian security forces in the town.

In another development, Israel said it arrested a British citizen last month who it suspected was sent by Hezbollah to carry out a terror attack in Israel. The Prime Minister‚s Office said Sunday that its security forces believed Hezbollah had recruited Jihad Shoman in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, a U.N. human rights mission began its work in Gaza, meeting with Palestinian officials on Sunday. Israel has said it will not cooperate with the mission, calling it biased and its findings predetermined.

The mission was appointed last October by the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Commission, which – even before the commission launched its investigation – adopted a resolution accusing Israel of “war crimes” and “widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights.”

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