Barak considers 'timeout' in peace process

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The Independent Online

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday debated with his Cabinet whether to call a "timeout" from the peace process, a move that would effectively put on hold years of negotiations with the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak on Sunday debated with his Cabinet whether to call a "timeout" from the peace process, a move that would effectively put on hold years of negotiations with the Palestinians.

After more than three weeks of violence that has left nearly 120 dead, Barak has indicated there's little hope at present for progress toward a comprehensive political settlement, though that's been his top priority since his election last year.

Barak, whose government is in danger of collapse, said Friday he would make the decision on an open-ended timeout after an Arab summit in Cairo, Egypt, which concluded Sunday with condemnations of Israel.

Ziad Abu Zayyad, a prominent Palestinian legislator, said Barak had done little to advance the peace process, and a formal suspension would have little meaning. "It's frozen already," he said.

Israeli soldiers and Palestinians militants skirmished in the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Saturday, leaving four Palestinians dead and more than 100 injured as the daily confrontations showed no signs of abating. Several stone throwing clashes broke out Sunday in the West Bank, but no injuries or deaths were reported.

Meanwhile, several members of Barak's Cabinet, which was holding its regular meeting Sunday, said they opposed suspending the peace process.

"A timeout will lead nowhere," Transportation Minister Amon Lipkin-Shahak told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said such a move would damage Israel's international standing, and argued that the government should "not announce a cessation in the attempt to reach an arrangement in the foreseeable future."

Meanwhile, Barak has been holding talks with Ariel Sharon, leader of the right-wing Likud opposition party, in a bid to bolster his minority government. Sharon previously rejected the idea of joining the government, but said Sunday it was a possibility if Barak slowed down the peace process.

Sharon, speaking on Israel radio, said he could support a unity government that aimed for "a different peace process that will lead to a long-term interim agreement that will keep strategic points in our hands."

If Sharon and his Likud party join Barak, it could prevent the Israeli government from crumbling, which would lead to early elections. However, Sharon is widely reviled by the Palestinians, and his presence in the government would hamper efforts to revive peace negotiations.

In response to the current crisis, the Israeli government has also been making an assessment on a "unilateral separation" from the Palestinians. In such a scenario, Israel would unilaterally draw a fortified border with the Palestinians without waiting for a peace agreement.

The Israelis and Palestinians have declared several cease-fires, including one announced Tuesday after a summit in Cairo mediated by U.S. President Bill Clinton. None have taken hold, and each new round of clashes prompts bitter recriminations and calls for vengeance.

Just three months ago, Israelis and Palestinians were closer than ever to a comprehensive settlement when they held two weeks of intense negotiations overseen by Clinton at Camp David, Maryland.

But they failed to reach a breakthrough, and the violence that erupted at the end of September is the worst since the two sides launched regular negotiations seven years ago.

Both sides have said that the violence must end, and the overheated political climate cool down before serious peace negotiations can resume.

Speaking at the Arab summit in Cairo, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat told the Cairo summit that despite "the worst kinds of mass killings ... our choice is the choice of permanent, just and comprehensive peace."

The Israelis and Palestinians both blame each other for instigating the violence, and an Israeli government spokesman accused Arafat of undermining years of painstaking negotiations.

"For the past seven years he was the partner for peace," the spokesman, Nachman Shai, told The Associated Press. "We were absolutely sure and convinced he was going to make peace with us. But in a few weeks, everything collapsed, everything was brought down by him."

"Arafat changed his mind. I don't know why," said Shai. "Maybe we should wait now for a while."