- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2000

JERUSALEM In an election contest billed as a referendum on Middle East peacemaking, Prime Minister Ehud Barak launched his race against hawkish Ariel Sharon yesterday with a pledge to continue "in the direction of peace."

Only hours earlier, Mr. Sharon became Mr. Barak's opponent by default, when the more popular Benjamin Netanyahu opted out of the prime ministerial election set for Feb. 6, saying he did not want to preside over Israel's fractious parliament.

The prime minister, his popularity battered by a 3-month-old Palestinian uprising that has cost more than 330 lives, pledged to work to the end to pursue a peace accord.

"We must move forward and pass the high obstacle in our way once and for all," Mr. Barak told a cheering crowd in the Negev Desert city of Beersheva. "We must continue to protect the vital interests of the state of Israel, protect its security and that of its citizens, but continue with the process in the direction of peace, because there is no real alternative."

From the sidelines, Mr. Netanyahu pledged he would do all he could to scuttle any deal with the Palestinians Mr. Barak pushed through in the seven weeks remaining before the election.

Mr. Netanyahu said in Tel Aviv that he had already talked to officials in the incoming Bush administration and the White House to argue against such a deal.

"The Palestinians make no bones about the fact that every position they receive is merely a forward position for the next attack, for the next unleashing of violence," Mr. Netanyahu said.

For now, Mr. Netanyahu has thrown his support to Mr. Sharon, who replaced him as Likud party leader after last year's election. The two are not on good terms, and Mr. Netanyahu would not say whether he would serve in a Sharon government.

Further complicating the picture was the possibility that another ex-prime minister, Shimon Peres, might enter the race as a third candidate, appealing to doves who believe Mr. Barak has not done enough for peace. Mr. Peres, who held consultations yesterday and has not ruled out a run for prime minister, has run five times but has never been elected.

For Mr. Sharon, 72, a race for prime minister as a viable candidate is the ultimate political rehabilitation. After a long military career, Mr. Sharon, as defense minister, directed Israel's ill-fated 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

An Israeli commission of inquiry deposed him after the war for his role in allowing the massacre of Palestinian refugees in two Beirut refugee camps by Lebanese Phalangist militiamen. Palestinians call him a war criminal.

It was Mr. Sharon's visit to the Al Aqsa mosque compound Sept. 28 that triggered the current round of Palestinian-Israeli violence.

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Netanyahu both reject Mr. Barak's compromise offers to the Palestinians and his right to negotiate an agreement now because he has officially resigned. Mr. Sharon has said he would not honor a pact signed by Mr. Barak.

In his Beersheva speech, Mr. Barak said it is crucial to move ahead with efforts to revive the talks now. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are in Washington for consultations aimed at restarting the talks.

"Those who say we should abandon the negotiations … are leading us to a dead end that will lead us to more violence, more casualties," Mr. Barak said.

Israeli law requires a referendum on peace treaties that change the country's borders. Mr. Barak has said he would use the election as a referendum on the agreement he hopes to achieve by then.

Mr. Barak's failure to finalize a peace treaty and the continuing violence have cut into his support. Polls show that many Israelis favor the tougher attitude represented by Mr. Sharon and Mr. Netanyahu.

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