Pressure on Barak intensifies as violence heats up

JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is resisting pressure to step up Israel's military response to the violence and terror in the Palestinian territories.

Back from the United States Tuesday, Barak plunged into consultations with top ministers and army generals following the deaths on Monday of four Israelis — two soldiers and two civilians — in a series of attacks on road traffic in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Eight others were wounded in the attacks.

Israel responded with a decision to seal off all Palestinian towns in the West Bank, an Israeli general, Yitzhak Eitan, announced at a news conference hours later.

Informed sources claim the pressures on Barak are coming not only from the Jewish settlers and from the right of the political spectrum, but from within the Israel Defense Force's senior officer corps.

But the sources said the premier was determined to stick with his policy of relative restraint. They said he would not order the IDF to change its basic strategy, despite the mounting Israeli casualties.

Some observers link Barak's position to reports out of Washington that President Clinton still hopes to host another three-way summit before he relinquishes the presidency on Jan. 20. According to these reports, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat voiced his readiness to attend such a summit with Barak and Clinton when he met with the U.S. president in Washington on Nov. 9.

Barak, it appears, has signaled his consent, too, although his public position is that diplomacy can't go ahead until the level of violence is significantly reduced.

Events this week underscored his position.

On Monday, Israel sustained its heaviest daily toll of casualties since the violence began in the West Bank and Gaza in late September. Palestinian gunmen killed four Israelis that day — including two soldiers and a woman — during three separate ambushes. Eight others were wounded in the attacks.

Hours after, Israel responded with a decision to seal off all Palestinian towns. Two days later, at least seven Palestinians were killed in clashes between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops.

Israeli forces had prepared for heightened violence Wednesday, the 12th anniversary of Yasser Arafat's symbolic declaration of Palestinian independence from exile in Algiers.

Clinton's meetings with the two Middle East protagonists drew scant attention because of the ongoing saga of the presidential election. The participants, for their part, preferred to divulge little, either in their public comments or in off-the-record briefings by their aides.

For domestic political reasons, neither Barak nor Arafat was prepared to project publicly any deviation from the tough positions each took with him into the Oval Office. Arafat demands an international force to "protect" the Palestinians from the IDF.

Barak insists on a serious and sustained reduction of the violence in accordance with understandings reached at the Sharm el-Sheik summit last month and subsequently confirmed — but not implemented — at a meeting between Arafat and Israeli cabinet member Shimon Peres.

Barak's determination to eschew military escalation against the Palestinians, at least for the moment, was evident in his address to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Chicago on Monday.

"In the current round of unrest we have until now taken a path of great restraint despite constant provocations," he said. "We are trying to minimize bloodshed and prevent a widening of the confrontation, but we will know how to respond."

But Ariel Sharon's rejected the prime minister's approach.

Sharon told the U.S. Jewish leaders, as he has repeatedly told Israeli audiences, that he believes the IDF can defeat the "Al-Aksa intifada" without triggering a major escalation in the territories and without sparking a general conflagration in the region.

"Jews are under siege and under fire," Sharon said in his address. "I fought 52 years ago in the war for independence to defend Jerusalem. I did not think the day would come after 50 years, that it would happen again that Jerusalem is under siege."

His sentiments were echoed Tuesday night in downtown Jerusalem, where West Bank Jewish settlers demonstrated under the slogan, "Allow the IDF to Win."

By the same token, Sharon made it clear in Chicago that he is no longer interested in serving under Barak in a national unity government, but rather is focusing all his energies and those of his Likud Party on bringing the Barak government down.

Those energies are being thwarted, for the moment, by a tenuous "safety net" extended to the prime minister by the fervently Orthodox Shas Party. Some political pundits are warning, though, that the holes in that net are growing bigger every day.

Assisting Barak to stay afloat politically is the plain and sobering fact that no specific alternative policy has been articulated by the opposition, other than Sharon's vague assertion that he could do things better if he were in power.

The bleak mood discernible around the nation seems to stem from a sense that neither Barak nor anyone else has a foolproof solution to offer.

And despite the announced closures around all the major Palestinian cities, the next day Palestinian cars and pedestrians were still moving between the cities.

"There is just no way of effecting a hermetic sealing-off," said IDF's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz.