- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2000

JERUSALEM Shimon Peres, the man most closely identified with Israel's peace deals with the Palestinians, abandoned his bid to run for prime minister yesterday after failing to find 10 members of parliament to back his candidacy.

Hours before a midnight deadline for registering candidates, the left-wing Meretz party decided to withhold its support from Mr. Peres, fearing his campaign would split the peace camp and harm the chances of defeating hawkish opposition leader Ariel Sharon in the vote Feb. 6.

Meretz's decision was a victory for Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who now will face Mr. Sharon in a two-man race that could become a referendum on a peace agreement with the Palestinians if talks under way in Washington bear fruit.

Mr. Barak, who failed to clinch a peace deal with the Palestinians and has presided over the region's worst violence in nearly 20 years, resigned earlier this month seeking a new mandate from Israelis.

"I thought that in order to prevent the election of Ariel Sharon, we need to do something different. I was prevented from doing so. This is a democratic country, and I accept the decision," Mr. Peres told reporters after Meretz's announcement.

In Washington, both Israeli and Palestinian teams discussing a basis for new peace talks expressed optimism about a set of ideas put forward Tuesday by President Clinton.

The Palestinians "are speaking about the real issues," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Moshe Debby told the Associated Press. "This is the difference we can feel."

Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo also voiced satisfaction. "Concerning sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem, including holy Islamic and Christian shrines, we are very close on this point," he said.

Israeli newspapers have reported that the Israeli negotiating team may be willing to cede sovereignty over the Temple Mount, considered sacred by both sides, if the Palestinians give up their demand that refugees be allowed to return to property once held in Israel.

Mr. Peres, 77, needed the support of another party in parliament to compete. Meretz put the matter to a vote in its 50-member party council late yesterday, and Mr. Peres lost.

"Tomorrow morning these two men would have begun polishing their swords, drawing each other's blood," Meretz leader Yossi Sarid said. "I'm not willing to participate in wars inside the peace camp."

Mr. Sarid had mediated between the two men throughout yesterday, securing a promise from Mr. Barak to make Mr. Peres head of the team negotiating peace with the Palestinians in exchange for dropping his election bid.

Mr. Peres, the architect of Israel's landmark peace accord with the Palestinians in 1993 and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has been sidelined in Mr. Barak's 19-month administration.

He turned down Mr. Barak's offer and asked Meretz to vote on his request for support.

Mr. Peres' rebuff, coupled with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to drop out of the race earlier this week, left Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharon alone in the contest.

For many Palestinians, it's a match between men who have waged fierce wars against them and have rejected their terms for peace.

"Sharon or Barak, they're the same," said Ahmed Barid, a Palestinian schoolteacher from Ramallah, lamenting Mr. Barak's handling of a 12-week-old Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza that has killed at least 334 persons.

"They hate Palestinians equally, and they're against peace," he said, articulating a sentiment that is now widespread in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The two candidates have much in common.

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Barak are both retired army generals, separated by a generation. Both are decorated war heroes, and both went straight from the army to politics. But they stand on different sides of the political divide.

Mr. Sharon, the 72-year-old leader of the right-wing Likud party, opposed most of the Israeli-Palestinian peace deals of the past seven years. Speaking at an academic conference yesterday, he played down chances of reaching a final accord with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future.

"There is no opportunity to reach a final-status accord today because it is not possible to divide Jerusalem," he said.

Palestinians blame Mr. Barak, 58, for taking some of the harshest measures against them in Israel's 33-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, including rocketing and shelling towns in response to Palestinian shooting and bombing attacks.

But Mr. Barak also offered Palestinians a state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip at a Camp David summit in July. He sent his negotiators to Washington this week for more peace talks with the Palestinians despite ongoing violence.

Meretz's decision was only the latest in a long list of disappointments for Mr. Peres, whose popularity never matched his accomplishments and international stature.

Mr. Peres served twice as prime minister, though he was never elected. He was credited for reining in Israel's triple-digit inflation in the mid-1980s, pulling troops back in Lebanon after a devastating war in 1982 and engineering peace deals with the Palestinians.

Mr. Peres succeeded Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after his assassination in 1995 and called an election months later, hoping to capitalize on a groundswell of support for the left prompted by the murder.

He was defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu by less than a percentage point, in part due to Palestinian suicide bombings that killed scores and undermined the confidence of Israelis in the peace deals Mr. Peres negotiated.

Earlier this year, Mr. Peres sought to be Israel's president, a largely ceremonial post, but lost the vote in parliament.

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