- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2001

JERUSALEM In a dramatic turnaround, caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared late yesterday he would not serve in Ariel Sharon's Cabinet, throwing plans for a unity government into disarray.
Less than a week ago, Mr. Barak who was trounced by Mr. Sharon in a Feb. 6 election for prime minister accepted Mr. Sharon's offer to serve as defense minister.
His decision yesterday not to accept the defense job came in a letter to Mr. Sharon, who is trying to set up a national unity government with his Likud and Mr. Barak's Labor party. In the letter, Mr. Barak said he would recommend that Labor join if conditions were right.
But Mr. Barak charged in the letter that Mr. Sharon was relating to Labor as a soldier who must follow orders, "in a way that seriously harms the trust between us and does not allow me to accept the position" of defense minister.
It is not clear whether Mr. Barak's statement meant the Labor party would not join the unity government. Some leaders of the party have said they favor such a coalition but one without Mr. Barak.
In Washington, the State Department had no comment yesterday on Mr. Barak's move, but said the administration looks forward to working with whatever government emerges.
Mr. Barak's decision to enter Mr. Sharon's government had set off a groundswell of opposition in his own party among activists who blamed him for the election failure.
Labor Party activists saw Mr. Barak's landslide loss by nearly 25 percentage points as a repudiation of his policy of offering far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians for peace.
They also blamed a low turnout in the election, instrumental in Mr. Barak's defeat, on the way the Israeli leader handled negotiations with the Palestinians.
Party activists charged that Mr. Barak froze them out of the decision-making process and made mistakes in the peace talks as a result. One by one, his political allies dropped away, miffed over his one-man-rule style.
Mr. Barak lost his majority in parliament in July over concessions he planned to offer the Palestinians at a summit meeting at Camp David, Md., with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. There and at a last-minute round of intensive negotiations just before the election, Mr. Barak suggested a Palestinian state in almost all of the West Bank and Gaza, with Palestinian control over parts of Jerusalem. The Palestinians did not accept the proposals.
Voters who backed Mr. Barak in an election in May 1999 switched to Mr. Sharon in droves, complaining about his frequent policy shifts. After the negotiations with the Palestinians ended without agreement several days before the election, Mr. Barak began talking of the necessity of unilateral separation, drawing a border between Israel and the Palestinians without further talks, if necessary.
Mr. Barak led his party directly into negotiations with Mr. Sharon after the election, though he had warned the people that a Sharon government might bring war to the Middle East. When he accepted Mr. Sharon's offer to serve as defense minister, along with party veteran Shimon Peres as foreign minister, both sides expressed confidence that a coalition agreement was near.
But negotiations between Likud and Labor hit a snag over the inclusion in the government of far-right parties that reject compromise with the Palestinians.
In Mr. Barak's letter to Mr. Sharon, the defeated Israeli leader charged that Mr. Sharon had destroyed the credibility between them.
Mr. Barak said he would recommend that Labor join a Sharon government if the conditions were right, but informed his party that he would resign from party leadership and from the parliament.
The Labor party had tentatively scheduled a convention for Monday to vote on joining the government. Mr. Sharon, running out of patience, set a one-week deadline for a Labor decision, according to a Likud negotiator.
After that, Mr. Sharon would move to set up a coalition with right-wing and Orthodox Jewish parties, said the negotiator, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.
Such a coalition would be unlikely to offer any concessions to the Palestinians but would have a small but stable majority in the parliament.
Mr. Sharon had campaigned against Mr. Barak's policy of concessions and harshly criticized Mr. Barak for conducting negotiations with the Palestinians while violence continued in the West Bank and Gaza.
Meanwhile, at the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank town of Nablus yesterday, gunmen from Mr. Arafat's Fatah movement fired into the air, and enraged Palestinians threatened revenge against Israel during the funeral of an Islamic militant gunned down, reportedly by Israeli special forces.
As tensions seethed, a Jewish settler was shot and wounded in a drive-by shooting by Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank, the army said. The 40-year-old man was treated for wounds to his chest and stomach and was in moderate condition.
In another outbreak of violence, a Palestinian woman stabbed an 18-year-old Jewish seminary student in Hebron. The student was taken to a hospital for treatment and the attacker was apprehended, the military said.
At the Balata refugee camp, thousands of Palestinians marched alongside the body of Mahmoud Madani, 25, a Hamas leader who was killed in the camp Monday. The area's governor, Mahmoud Aloul, said Israeli undercover troops opened fire on Mr. Madani from a car with Palestinian plates.

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