Barak in talks with hard-liners

By JACK KATZENELL

Associated Press

JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ehud Barak today began talks with the hawkish opposition on the terms of joining his teetering government – a move that, if successful, could freeze Mideast peace negotiations for months.

The start of the formal coalition contacts came a day after the prime minister announced that Israel was taking “time out” from peace talks, to the chagrin of President Clinton and dovish members of Barak’s center-left government.

The “time out” prompted Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to say Barak could “go to hell.”

In the West Bank town of Nablus, two Palestinian teen-agers, ages 15 and 17, died today after being shot in the head during earlier clashes with Israeli troops. The deaths brought to 123 the number of people killed in 26 days of fighting. All but eight of those killed have been Arabs.

Israeli troops and Palestinian militants traded gunfire today in the main street of Hebron, an almost daily event. Also, Palestinian stone throwers clashed with Israeli soldiers at two trouble spots in the Gaza Strip, with 36 Palestinians wounded overall, according to hospital doctors.

In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, protesters spray-painted a donkey to resemble the Israeli flag, and tied up the animal in the street where rock throwers and soldiers clashed. The protesters also painted the names of Barak and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the donkey.

With no letup in the confrontations, the Israelis clamped down on several Palestinian areas.

The Israelis again closed the Palestinian airport in Gaza City, further restricting Palestinian travel. “We consider this as another step in the hard siege on the Palestinian people,” said Salman Abu Halib, general director of Palestinian Airlines.

Also today, the army imposed a blockade on Beit Jalla, a Palestinian town from which Palestinian gunmen have been shooting at the Jewish neighborhood of Gilo on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem.

On Sunday night, Israel responded to the shooting with missiles and tank-mounted machine gun fire. Beit Jalla and nearby Bethlehem were plunged into darkness, a Beit Jalla factory was destroyed and several homes damaged.

One rocket hit a children’s bedroom in the home of the Nazal family in Beit Jalla. Sohana Nazal said moments earlier she had moved her children, George, 3, and Ghada, 2, from the room because it faces Israeli tanks on a nearby hill.

“We heard a loud crash. We thought it (the rocket) had landed on the street. Only when we opened the door to their room and saw all the smoke, did we realize what had happened,” Nazal said.

Hundreds of civilians have fled Beit Jalla and the nearby Aida refugee camp.

The Israeli army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, said life for the residents of Beit Jalla can return to normal only if the shooting from the Palestinian side stops. “If they make it impossible to conduct a normal life on the Israeli side, I do not think we can tolerate such a situation,” Mofaz told Israel radio.

Barak today launched formal talks to broaden his coalition, which at present controls only 30 seats in the 120-member legislature. Parliament returns from summer recess on Sunday. If Barak fails to bring opposition leader Ariel Sharon and his Likud party into the government, early elections appear inevitable.

Barak and his negotiators were to meet separately with Sharon as well as representatives from the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party and the dovish Meretz factions, both former coalition members.

Sharon has said he would not join the government unless Barak distances himself from concessions he offered the Palestinians in July during the Mideast summit at Camp David, Md.

At the time, Barak was ready to give the Palestinians more than 90 percent of the West Bank, as well as control over parts of traditionally Arab east Jerusalem.

Critics said Sharon’s presence in the government would dim hopes for peace.

“I think a national unity government … would make the prospect of peace more distant and undermine the belief in the world that we really do want to make peace,” said Justice Minister Yossi Beilin of Barak’s One Israel alignment.

“If Sharon will have the right to veto peace negotiations, I will not be able to sit in it (the government),” said Beilin, a key player in previous interim accords.

The weekend’s Arab summit held Israel responsible for the violence and called for international intervention, but did not make it obligatory for Arab governments who had made peace with Israel to sever their relations with the Jewish state.

Clinton and Mubarak have been trying to get Barak and Arafat back to the negotiating table. While campaigning in New York state on Sunday for his wife’s Senate campaign, Clinton spoke to Barak by telephone for 15 minutes. Clinton said he would keep working with both sides to try to get them to honor a truce agreement worked out last week and to return to peace talks eventually, according to White House officials.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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