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Sharon, Barak Join Forces To Govern State of Israel

By Tracy Wilkinson
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- JERUSALEM

On a day full of funerals, Israel’s prime minister-elect and the man he trounced at the polls agreed in principle late Thursday to joining forces in a coalition government that will immediately face the prospects of a widening guerrilla-style war with Palestinians.

Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to enter the government of hawkish Ariel Sharon as his defense minister, Israeli radio and television reported, concluding intense negotiations that began after the Feb. 6 election.

Barak’s office said the formation of a so-called unity government including Barak’s leftist Labor Party and Sharon’s right-wing Likud Party was conditional on resolving several minor points. Sharon’s spokesman, Raanan Gissin, said the deal was all but done.

Agreement came as the crisis in the Middle East entered a new phase, with renewed violence in the region spiraling out of control and an ever deeper sense of despair and anger hardening among both Israelis and Palestinians.

Under rainy skies Thursday, Israelis buried most of the eight young Israelis killed a day earlier by a Palestinian bus driver who slammed into a crowd at a bus stop near Tel Aviv, in the deadliest attack on Israelis in nearly four years. A Palestinian policeman trying to infiltrate a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip was shot dead by Israeli soldiers, the army said, and violence raged around Jerusalem and in the West Bank and Gaza.

The deteriorating security situation helped propel Sharon and Barak toward the coalition agreement, which must be approved by their parties. Opposition in the Labor Party will be especially stiff.

Sharon had wooed Labor to his administration to give it a more moderate image and to shoulder the burden of fighting a nearly 5-month-old Palestinian uprising that in recent days has surged to its most violent level in weeks.

But the sober reality is that even with Barak and Labor’s elder statesman, Shimon Peres, joining Sharon, the options facing the government are few as Israelis and Palestinians alike brace increased violence.

Under Sharon’s government, the pursuit of peace, if it is pursued at all, will be limited and phased, Sharon and his aides say. Reaching a comprehensive settlement is no longer part of the vocabulary.

Battling what is increasingly a guerrilla conflict is difficult for a conventional, if formidable, army such as Israel’s. The conflict has become what one analyst called an asymmetrical war, one in which the goals and front lines are murky.

“It’s a war in which there is no military victory, certainly not easy and swift,” Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said Thursday.

In addition to returning to a policy of assassinating select Palestinian militant leaders, Israeli forces are building new fortifications along potential flash points, increasing the number of days of reserve duty and asking for a bigger budget.

“The status quo is beginning to be too high a price to pay,” said Dan Meridor, a centrist legislator who is expected to join the new government. “The pretty dream (of reaching peace) that we were all raised by and educated for will not come to life in today’s reality.”

Taking advantage of the vacuum created by the transition from one prime minister to another, Palestinians escalated shooting attacks on settlements, soldiers and motorists.