Amid violence, a unity government may emerge

JERUSALEM — The Palestinians appear determined to guarantee that Ariel Sharon does not enjoy a honeymoon.

Just as Israeli security officials predicted, Palestinian violence has surged since Sharon's victory in prime ministerial elections last week.

On Wednesday, at least eight Israelis were killed and 20 wounded when a Palestinian driver plowed a bus into a crowded bus stop south of Tel Aviv, the deadliest terrorist attack in Israel in four years.

Seven soldiers were among the dead.

An anonymous caller to Israel Radio's Arabic service said the military wing of Hamas carried out the attack.

The driver was wounded during a police chase and apprehended some 20 miles south of the scene of the assault, which took place outside the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon.

The attack came a day after Israel assassinated a Palestinian security official in a pinpoint helicopter attack in the Gaza Strip.

Missiles destroyed the car in which Massoud Ayad, 54, was traveling on Tuesday. A member of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Force 17 bodyguard unit, Ayad had been recruited by Hezbollah in Lebanon to carry out attacks against Israel from inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israeli officials said.

In another development Wednesday, Palestinian officials claimed Israeli security forces killed a West Bank Fatah leader in an ambush near Nablus. Iyaad Abu Harb was reportedly close to another Fatah leader, Thabet Thabet, who was assassinated by Israeli security forces in December.

In other violence Tuesday Palestinians claimed a 13-year-old boy was shot in the chest and killed by Israeli fire near the Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip. The Israel Defense Force flatly denied involvement in the incident.

On Sunday, an Israeli driver on a main road linking Jerusalem to the Etzion Bloc of West Bank settlements was killed when he was shot in the head by gunmen in Beit Jalla, a Palestinian town next to Bethlehem.

Israeli security officials are divided as to the degree of responsibility the Palestinian Authority bears for the surge in attacks in recent days, which may be intended to test Sharon's declaration that he will not negotiate under fire.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, a national unity government appears increasingly likely as envoys from the Likud and Labor parties work to overcome snags in negotiations.

Both Sharon and outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak appear determined to forge a unity coalition that will remain in power until the end of the Knesset's term in November 2003.

The Palestinian rejection of President Clinton's peace proposals has made it relatively easy for Israel's two major parties to set aside their differences over the shape of a final peace deal and agree on a platform vague enough for each to accept.

As a result, there is no specific reference — at least in versions leaked to the press — to the future of Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods. Likud officials had demanded an explicit commitment to keep the entire city under Israeli control.

Nor is there a call to dismantle isolated settlements. Labor had wanted this, but the pro-settler National Religious Party has threatened not to join a unity government if such provisions are included, and the Likud does not want to lose any of its "natural partners" because of a unity government.