- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2001

Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon sealed a deal yesterday with Labor leader Ehud Barak for the formation of a national unity government, a step a visiting Israeli envoy said was the only way out of the nation's dilemma.
Mr. Barak who was resoundingly defeated by Mr. Sharon only last week accepted Mr. Sharon's offer of the position of defense minister at the end of a two-hour meeting.
The agreement virtually ensures the formation of a stable government with a majority in the splintered parliament but raised questions about the course Israel will follow in the pursuit of peace with the Palestinians.
"One thing should be clear, this is a Sharon government and the basic policy lines will be set by the prime minister with the Labor party joining in," said Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to Washington. Mr. Shoval has been here this week as head of a three-man team meeting Bush administration officials and congressional leaders.
In Jerusalem, Mr. Barak's office issued a statement saying a decision had been made to set up a unity government, and that Mr. Barak's Labor party would receive the Defense and Foreign ministries.
It had been speculated previously that in any coalition deal the Foreign Ministry would go to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, one of the most dovish of Labor's top leaders.
Violence persisted as two mortar shells fired by Palestinians fell on a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, and Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian who was trying to infiltrate another settlement there.
No casualties were reported in the mortar attack at Netzarim, an isolated enclave in central Gaza. The settlement had come under mortar attack twice before.
The Palestinian killed near Kfar Darom, another isolated settlement in Gaza, was identified as Nasser Hassanat, 23. He was a member of a Palestinian security force, according to documents he carried.
Mr. Sharon, who cannot take office until he forges a majority coalition, was confident. "I will set up a unity government," he told reporters before meeting European Union peace envoy Miguel Moratinos. Mr. Sharon said it would "enable us to reach security and peace."
But until the announcement, funerals dominated the news. In the coastal city of Ashkelon, weeping parents buried four young Israeli soldiers one after the other at a military cemetery under gray, drizzly skies.
They were among the eight killed Wednesday when a Palestinian bus driver crashed into a crowd of soldiers and civilians at a bus stop south of Tel Aviv. The driver, Khalil Abu Olbeh from Gaza City, was shot and captured after a highway chase.
In response, Israel clamped its toughest quarantine yet on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, banning Palestinians from entering Israel or leaving for other countries, limiting internal travel, enforcing a sea blockade and closing the Palestinian airport.
Israel also canceled VIP passes issued to officials in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. The passes allowed them to travel through Israel without stringent security checks.
Mr. Shoval, meanwhile, said the Bush administration had given its support to demands by Mr. Sharon that all violence cease before peace negotiations could resume.
"Both our governments are led by a sense of realism that was not characteristic of either the Clinton administration or the Barak government in trying to establish peace with the Palestinians," Mr. Shoval said in an interview.
Mr. Shoval spoke after meetings with Vice President Richard B. Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and congressional leaders from both parties.
The administration, he said, also backed efforts by Mr. Sharon to seek an interim peace accord with the Palestinians instead of a final peace treaty.
"Shooting for a final agreement, a permanent peace, as worthwhile as this aim might be, is not realistic," Mr. Shoval said. "The Bush administration agreed that we should try to move forward on an interim but long-term agreement."
Asked about the prospects for a peace with the Palestinians, he said, "Optimism is too strong a word, but this government is our only choice. Previous policies proved a failure."
Mr. Shoval said Israel has the wherewithal to fight terrorism and eventually the Palestinians will get the message: "Either stop the violence or it will go from bad to worse."
"The onus is really on Yasser Arafat. If he believes he can extract further concessions from us and internationalize the conflict, get the U.N. and others involved, he will not stop the violence.
"If it is made clear to him that violence will not lead to any solution and will not improve the lot of the Palestinians, which is really bad, there is a chance that ultimately Arafat will see the light," Mr. Shoval said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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