Sharon names his price for propping up Barak

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The Independent Online

Ehud Barak, Israel's beleaguered Prime Minister, turned for political support yesterday to the man largely responsible for his troubles, Ariel Sharon.

Ehud Barak, Israel's beleaguered Prime Minister, turned for political support yesterday to the man largely responsible for his troubles, Ariel Sharon.

The price being demanded by the hardline Likud leader could not only do irreparable damage to the seven-year peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, but could inflame further violence on the streets.

Two Palestinians died yesterday from wounds sustained earlier in the 26-day-old uprising, which began after Mr Sharon's visit to Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem's old city, one of Islam's holiest sites. A roadside bomb exploded last night as a convoy of Israeli cars drove by in the Gaza Strip. Israeli television described the explosion as "very powerful". The Israeli army later said there had been no casualties.

So far 127 lives have been lost in the uprising, and there were more clashes in the West Bank and Gaza in the wake of a heavy exchange of fire overnight on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The Israeli army imposed a blockade on Beit Jala, a hillside community bordering Bethlehem, after shots were fired at the Jewish settlement of Gilo, bringing machine-gun and missile fire in return from Israeli tanks and helicopters. The international airport in Gaza, reopened by Israel as a confidence-building measure after last week's Sharm el- Sheikh ceasefire talks, was closed once more.

Not only is there no immediate prospect of a ceasefire, Mr Barak has declared a "time-out" in the peace process, a move aimed at appeasing Mr Sharon. But the Likud leader is reported to be demanding much more, including the job of Deputy Prime Minister, abandonment of agreements with the Palestinians made at Camp David in July and a veto on future peace moves. Talks between the parties ended without agreement, but a Likud spokeswoman said there would be another meeting today.

Mr Barak is racing against time to put together an emergency coalition government before the Knesset returns at the weekend. His One Israel alliance has only 30 seats in the 120-seat legislature, and he could be forced to call an early election if he cannot do a deal with Likud. But the Prime Minister may be using the threat of Mr Sharon's return to government to put pressure on his own Cabinet and persuade smaller parties, such as the liberal Meretz, with which he is also talking, to avoid bringing down his government.

Mr Barak's suspension of the peace process has been criticised by some of his colleagues, including the Justice Minister, Yossi Beilin, who said he would not participate in a unity government that gave Mr Sharon a veto over a peace deal.

Such a government, he said, "would make the prospect of peace more distant and undermine the belief in the world that we really do want tomake peace".

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