Sharon demands end to talk of deal over Jersualem

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Israeli public support for Ehud Barak is plummeting with every week of the Bloody October confrontation with the Palestinians. The most popular initiative he has taken, perhaps second only to rocketing Yasser Arafat's compound on Thursday, was to invite the ultra-hawkish Likud leader Ariel Sharon to join a national emergency government.

Israeli public support for Ehud Barak is plummeting with every week of the Bloody October confrontation with the Palestinians. The most popular initiative he has taken, perhaps second only to rocketing Yasser Arafat's compound on Thursday, was to invite the ultra-hawkish Likud leader Ariel Sharon to join a national emergency government.

A poll published yesterday in the tabloid Ma'ariv found 70 per cent dissatisfied with the way Mr Barak is handling the crisis, compared with 67 per cent last week. The same 70 per cent favoured a unity administration. Yet, surprisingly enough, asked whether the crisis would get worse or end with a peace agreement, 46 per cent said "peace agreement" and only 32 per cent thought it would get worse.

Even Mr Sharon, blamed for igniting the current cycle of violence a fortnight ago, has now drawn level with Mr Barak. According to the same poll Benjamin Netanyahu, the man Barak thrashed 16 months ago, would emerge a clear winner, with 46 per cent, up five points from last week.

Negotiations to broaden the government base continued yesterday and will resume tonight after the end of the Jewish sabbath.

A government spokesman predicted that they would end successfully in a few days. He was less optimistic about the prospect of an early summit meeting with Mr Arafat, despite a suggestion yesterday by the former prime minister, Shimon Peres, that a breakthrough was imminent.

Resistance in Mr Barak's Labour party to a marriage of solidarity with Mr Sharon is eroding. The killing of two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob on Thursday persuaded most of the Labour doves to drop their reservations. The public was demanding unity, and the peace process seemed to be in cold storage for the foreseeable future.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo breakthrough with the Palestinians, is one of the few still holding out. "I believe," he told The Independent last night, "that a government including Arik Sharon will be seen as an Israeli decision to end the peace process unilaterally. Rightly or wrongly, he is perceived as the man who ignited the whole fire. The world will think we are recruiting an arsonist to join the fire brigade."

Mr Beilin added that he would have to weigh very carefully whether to serve in such a government. "It will be very, very difficult for me," he said.

Mr Sharon's non-negotiable condition for joining a Barak government is that the concessions the prime minister offered at the Camp David summit in July will no longer be binding on Israel, if and when peace talks resume. Above all, he will not agree to any sharing of sovereignty in Jerusalem. He is not, however, demanding an abrogation of Oslo.

The Likud leader's aides say he is not seeking any specific portfolio. Ruby Rivlin, the party's chief whip, is urging him to accept no ministerial positions, for himself or any other Likud representative, though he wants Mr Sharon to serve on the informal inner security cabinet. Mr Rivlin was wary of giving Mr Barak legitimacy.

"We don't trust Barak," he said. "He is using us - to let Arafat know that once he is going with Sharon there is no way back to the Camp David ideas, and to show the Israeli people that he is for unity."

Other leading Likud MPs prefer to let Mr Barak stew. "He got himself into this mess," they argue.

"Let him get himself out of it. Especially when the polls are so good for us." The party consensus, nevertheless, is that the Likud will find its way in. As Zalman Shoval, who heads its foreign relations department, put it yesterday: "As a patriotic party, we cannot ignore the fact that the public wants unity. This is not a time for political nit-picking."

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