- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 27, 2001

TEL AVIV Israel's leaderless and defeated Labor Party voted yesterday to join Ariel Sharon in a unity government, hoping to preserve its say in peacemaking with the Arabs.

At a stormy convention, amid warnings that Labor's Cabinet ministers would end up explaining Mr. Sharon's militant policies, delegates voted 67 percent to 32 percent for a unity government with Likud.

The vote, in which fewer than half the 1,675 members of the Labor Party central committee took part, cleared the way for Mr. Sharon to try to further broaden his coalition with smaller parties.

Since his overwhelming victory Feb. 6 over Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Mr. Sharon has been trying to form a broad-based government to project unity in confronting Palestinian violence. Labor's joining him would blunt his image as an uncompromising hard-liner with a military outlook.

Labor's elder statesman, Shimon Peres, Mr. Sharon's choice as foreign minister in a unity government, argued for joining Mr. Sharon's government, saying Labor would influence the government in the direction of continuing peace talks with the Palestinians.

Denouncing opponents of the unity government, Mr. Peres shouted: "The time has come to listen to the people. We suffered a defeat because we did not listen to the people."

Polls show that about three-quarters of the Israeli people favor a unity government with Labor ministers in prominent roles, including Mr. Peres. The party convention will choose Labor's Cabinet ministers on Thursday, party officials said.

To demonstrate that Labor has a central role in shaping the new government's policy, Mr. Peres read from the guidelines of the proposed government, calling for peace with Israel's neighbors and equality for Israel's Arab citizens.

Current Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, a leading peace advocate in the Labor Party, pleaded with delegates not to endorse Mr. Sharon's stance banning negotiations with the Palestinians unless all violence stops.

But some delegates rejected Mr. Beilin's call, shouting, "He's right. He's right," in reference to Mr. Sharon.

As the heated debate progressed, violence erupted in the Gaza Strip. An Israeli soldier was wounded when Palestinians set off a bomb near an Israeli army patrol, the second bombing during the day, the military said.

A 15-year-old Palestinian was fatally shot in a clash with Israeli soldiers at Atarot airport, just outside Jerusalem, Palestinian hospital officials said. The Israeli army said troops opened fire when Palestinians tried to climb the airport perimeter fence.

Five months of fighting have claimed 409 lives, including 337 Palestinians and 57 Israeli Jews. Of the slain Israelis, a large number have been Jewish settlers targeted in drive-by shootings.

Prominent Jewish settlers yesterday asked their government to expel or assassinate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as payback for the growing number of attacks on Israelis.

The call came in response to two Palestinian shooting ambushes Sunday that wounded two Jewish settlers. Israeli security officials said Mr. Arafat's elite Force 17 unit was involved in the attacks, Israel radio reported.

Yehoshua Mor-Yosef, spokesman of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said Israeli commandos must target Mr. Arafat.

"Arafat is an enemy; he never was a partner. After seven years of war and him sending his own people to kill, we need to assassinate him," Mr. Mor-Yosef told the Associated Press. He said his views reflect those of the Settlers' Council, an umbrella group for more than 140 settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As a second option, Israel could arrest and expel Mr. Arafat and send him back to Tunisia, where he and other Palestinian leaders spent more than a decade of exile in the 1980s and early '90s, Mr. Mor-Yosef said. "He can be kicked out or sent to the hereafter," he added.

Arafat aide Nabil Aburdeneh said the settlers' call showed that they are "living in panic," but added that Israel's government is responsible for statements and actions by the settlers.

Unity-government opponents fear that Labor would be outvoted by Mr. Sharon's right-wing Likud and its allies in the government and would disappear as a force for peace on the Israeli political scene.

Mr. Barak flirted with the idea of serving as Mr. Sharon's defense minister before deciding to resign as Labor Party chairman and bow out of politics, leaving his party leaderless.

Avraham Burg, the parliament speaker and a candidate to replace Mr. Barak as party leader, recommended against joining Mr. Sharon's government and spoke of "frustration over the fact that our offer of peace to the Palestinians was not accepted."

For the past two decades, Labor has pushed for peace with Israel's Arab neighbors, offering to return territory Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Mr. Sharon's Likud party, while insisting that it, too, favors peace, has been far less willing to offer compromises.

An atmosphere of anger and defeat hung in the air of the theater, where the Labor delegates gathered.

"We must rebuild the party, because today it is totally destroyed," said activist Eli Dayan.

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