- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ehud Barak, facing a critical round of peace talks with the Palestinians and uncertainty on the Syrian track, struggled yesterday to defuse a domestic political crisis that threatens his 11-month-old government.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key partner in Mr. Barak's ruling coalition, announced it was quitting the government in a dispute over federal funding for its school system.

The move sent Mr. Barak scrambling to keep his center-left coalition alive.

The resignation of Shas Cabinet members does not take effect until the next Cabinet meeting, scheduled for Sunday.

Mr. Barak has until then to mollify Shas, the second-largest party in his coalition and one with a penchant for taking crises to the brink.

"The door is still slightly open, and we don't intend to close it," Mr. Barak, 58, said in a television interview.

He has some options if Shas follows through on its threat, but none are appealing.

Mr. Barak's trouble with Shas reflects a wider volatility in Israel. With voters divided almost evenly between left and right on peace issues, ultra-Orthodox parties have proven themselves adept at occupying the political middle ground where they wield the balance of power.

Shas is dovish on peace with Israel's Arab neighbors, making it a natural partner for Mr. Barak. But the religious party is staunchly conservative on social and religious issues, creating constant friction with the left wing of Mr. Barak's coalition.

At stake for Mr. Barak is an ambitious but tattered peace agenda.

Talks with the Palestinians, renewed yesterday in Washington, are sputtering, with just three months left to resolve some of the biggest disputes in the Arab-Israeli conflict. They include the borders of a future Palestinian state, the fate of 200,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and the status of Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their capital.

Israelis and Palestinians have set a September target date for a peace accord, a deadline that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat calls sacred.

U.S. mediator Aaron Miller met Palestinian and Israeli negotiators separately outside Washington, kicking off a week of secretive talks that could pave the way for a three-way summit among Mr. Arafat, Mr. Barak and President Clinton.

On the Syrian track, the death of President Hafez Assad on Saturday and the uncertainty surrounding his son and heir, Bashar, make quick progress improbable, analysts say.

If Shas bolts, taking its 17 parliament members into opposition in the 120-member Knesset, Mr. Barak will lose his 68-52 majority. He can try to woo several small parties to his coalition and govern with a slim majority, maybe even a minority. It would keep his government alive, but hardly robust enough to make sweeping concessions in peace talks.

Alternatively, Mr. Barak could invite the right-wing Likud bloc into what is referred to here as a "national unity" government, a misnomer given the political chasm that exists between Mr. Barak's Labor Party and Likud under hard-liner Ariel Sharon.

National unity governments in the 1980s were a recipe for political paralysis.

"I don't remember a situation that after less than a year the prime minister did not have a coalition with which to govern the country," Mr. Sharon told reporters.

Still another possibility would be for Mr. Barak to call early elections, hoping to capitalize on a spike in popularity after pulling Israeli troops out of Lebanon last month.

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