Why Barak Looks Set to Join Sharon in Unity Government

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Israeli rockets blasted a Palestinian activist in his car, killing him

The unseemly haste with which Israel's Labor party has rushed to join Ariel Sharon's Likud in a unity coalition may indicate a paradigm shift in Israeli politics. After all, just two weeks ago Ehud Barak was warning Israeli voters that electing Sharon would be a national catastrophe; on Tuesday Barak was locked in negotiations over how to join Sharon in government. The outgoing prime minister also signed off on the overnight assassination of a Palestinian activist in Gaza by missiles fired from an Israeli helicopter, as a reminder that the two parties take a common view of how Israel should deal with those its intelligence agencies conclude are engaged in terrorism.

Whether or not Barak accepts Sharon's offer to stay on as defense minister, it now looks increasingly likely that the outgoing prime minister's party will join Sharon in a unity government designed to stabilize both Israel's fractious domestic politics and its relations with the Palestinians. The broad terms of that unity-government agreement will be an undertaking by Sharon to respect existing treaties with the Palestinians signed by his predecessors; concerted efforts to make peace with Israel's neighbors; and a moratorium on new Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. And there's no difficulty in any of those conditions for Sharon — he'd previously vowed to abide by signed agreements with the Palestinians but not the offers made by Barak. And settlement activity had actually increased under Barak, less in the form of new settlements than in the expansion of existing ones.

A tempering factor?

For the Labor party, though, teaming up with Sharon means abandoning the idea of a comprehensive and final peace agreement with the Palestinians, and operating within the new prime minister's vision of pursuing only interim agreements for the foreseeable future. Sharon ultimately believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can't be resolved. Instead, it should be be managed to the extent that the interests of leaders on both sides converge in pursuit of stability. And Labor's leaders appear ready to embrace that logic — on the campaign trail they'd insisted that a final peace deal was within reach of a few more weeks of intense negotiation; now they're saying there's no chance of a deal and that they might as well settle into a unity government, arguing that their presence will temper Sharon's more ruthless instincts.

Interim agreements, of course, will require something of a mind shift on the Palestinian side, too. Two weeks ago their negotiators were meeting Israel's acting foreign minister in the Sinai to hammer out the details of proposals to hand over 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, and divide up Jerusalem. But "concessions" for Sharon are more likely to involve such moves as lifting Israel's security closure of Palestinian territories and opening a safe passage route between the West Bank and Gaza, rather than withdrawing from much of the 55 percent of the West Bank still in Israeli hands. So the important question may become whether Yasser Arafat is prepared to settle for stability instead of the vision of Palestinian statehood around which he'd rallied the Palestinians and the wider Arab world over the past six months. And the rocket attack on the car of one of his bodyguards may also be intended as a warning to the Palestinian leader of the consequences of continuing the uprising. But on the other side, the young militants who have organized and led the latest intifada are ready for Sharon to bring it on, and aren't likely to give Arafat much room to find an accommodation with the new Israeli government.

Camp David, suddenly, feels like a very long time ago.