Barak challenged to get tougher after holidays escalations

JERUSALEM — As leaders of the world community try to bring the Middle East back from the brink of war, Prime Minister Ehud Barak is facing a mounting political challenge to get tougher with the Arabs both inside and outside Israel.

As the intermittent violence continued in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it was the deadly Arab-on-Jew and Jew-on-Arab violence within the country that sent shock waves through Israelis as they tuned in to the news after Yom Kippur ended Monday night.

The Cabinet, in emergency session through much of Monday night, issued a somber statement deploring the violence involving the state's majority Jewish and minority Arab populations.

Barak told the nation at dawn Tuesday that each citizen, Jew and Arab alike, shared responsibility for preserving the delicate Jewish-Arab relationship built up painstakingly over the five decades of the state's existence.

One of the dangers posed by the street battles is that they may quickly become part of the political contest between Israel's political right and left. This despite the ongoing rhetoric from both sides calling for unity at this time of national emergency.

The death toll among Israeli Arabs since the unrest began in late September rose by at least 13 over Yom Kippur with the shooting in Nazareth of two Arab men on the eve of the solemn holiday.

Three others were seriously wounded by gunshots fired in the city that has Israel's largest Arab population.

Israeli Arab leaders blamed police for the shootings, but police said the fatal shots were most likely fired by civilians.

It soon became clear, however, that the violence in Nazareth was not an isolated incident. Instead, it was the worst of a series of events that had Arabs attacking Jewish cars and property, and Jewish vigilantes attacking Arabs and Arab property around the country.

One day after Palestinian mobs destroyed Joseph's Tomb in the West Bank city of Nablus, Jewish mobs attacked an old mosque in downtown Tiberias.

The violence continued with arson attacks on synagogues in Jaffa and Ramla, and Jewish looting of Arab shops in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa, Acre and other towns.

Israel's Army Radio said the scenes of violence Monday night looked like "civil war."

Sunday night's rioting in Nazareth was apparently begun by Jewish youths marching toward an Arab residential area, but this is still being disputed.

Early Sunday night, Israeli security forces discovered the bullet-ridden body of settler Rabbi Hillel Lieberman, who was last seen on Saturday heading for Joseph's Tomb after he heard that Palestinians were desecrating the holy site. Lieberman's body was found lying in a Nablus cave.

The Israeli Defense Force issued a statement that said the army holds the Palestinian Authority "directly responsible."

Members of the rabbi's family told the New York Times that he was the Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman's second cousin.

Lieberman's spokeswoman said that the senator is "very saddened by the loss of life, but as far as he is aware, he is not related to the man who was killed."

Given the lack of Israeli media coverage, apparently due to Yom Kippur, the exact order of events remains unclear. The lack of clarity has reinforced the Israeli Arab leadership's demands for a state inquiry into what happened.

While these leaders have stopped short of calling for a general strike, they want to know who is responsible for the mounting number of deaths among Israeli Arabs since turmoil engulfed the region late last month.

Even within Barak's own coalition, there has been increasingly strident criticism against the police for acting too forcefully against Israeli Arab rioters.

And the violence within Israel's borders has become the subject of debate among the nation's politicians.

Salient among the voices calling for unity was that of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Silent through the previous week of crisis, he went on the air Monday night to "offer my support to the prime minister."

Netanyahu pointedly refused to be drawn into any criticism of Barak's performance, either on the home front or when dealing with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu's measured tone contrasted with the sharp criticism of the prime minister expressed the next day by the leader of the Likud opposition, Ariel Sharon.

On Tuesday, Sharon accused Barak of vacillating when it came to diplomatic efforts and displaying a lack of resolve in military matters.

Some observers put these different stances down to a rivalry within the Likud Party.

They note that, despite all the talk of unity and a unity government, Barak is plainly hesitant to take Sharon into his government. He is, no doubt, at least partly concerned about the effect such a move would have within the Arab world and the wider international community.

In addition, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin is leading a group within Barak's Labor Party that publicly opposes the idea of Sharon serving as a senior minister in a unity government.

At least to some extent, this group shares the broad international judgment that Sharon's high-profile visit to the Temple Mount on Sept. 28 was a reckless act that triggered the subsequent crisis.

For his part, Sharon, who has repeatedly denied that his visit there was intended as a provocation, has been stridently defending Alec Ron, the commander of the northern district of Israel's police force.

Ron has been criticized by the Israeli Arab community, and by the left of the political spectrum, for his handling of the confrontations involving that community.

Barak, however, said that Ron was acting under orders and the entire police force deserved the nation's support at this difficult time.

But the sense of unease over the police force's performance has been spreading in coalition circles.

Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg called Tuesday for new orders to be issued to the police to prevent them from making an immediate use of firepower.

Barak is, meanwhile, being attacked for several other decisions he has made during the ongoing crisis.

The premier on Tuesday rejected criticism of his decision to extend the 48-hour period he gave the Palestinians to end the rioting.

The premier said his initial ultimatum to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to end the rioting by Monday night had prompted a wave of intervention by world leaders, and that these efforts must now be given time to bear fruit.

Barak's standing has also suffered in the wake of the Israeli army's sudden withdrawal from Joseph's Tomb in Nablus on Saturday — and the Palestinian mob's subsequent destruction of the Jewish holy site.

The IDF's withdrawal came just one day after Barak said that to leave under pressure of violent action would be "to create a precedent'' and therefore the army would not abandon the site.

The premier has also been weakened by Saturday's kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah gunmen. The IDF failed to stop the kidnappers from advancing north, and efforts to rescue the kidnapped soldiers have since shifted to the diplomatic front.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was in the region this week, seeking to mediate the release of the prisoners.

The kidnapping affects Barak because as minister of defense, he carries ultimate responsibility for what was apparently a serious lapse of judgment on the part of local IDF commanders.

The incident also cast a pall over what Barak has projected as his most notable success since he assumed office: the IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon last May.