Barak lashes out at critics, defends handling of crisis

JERUSALEM - Facing sharp criticism from both Israelis and Palestinians, Prime Minister Ehud Barak aggressively defended his handling of the current upheaval and said Saturday that a political settlement offered the only way out of a half-century of Mideast conflict.

Barak's comments came in a television interview that appeared aimed at staking out a strong stance with voters by lashing out at his many critics ahead of early elections due in the spring.

Wagging his index finger at a pair of Israeli interviewers, Barak accused the Palestinians of instigating the violence that has claimed close to 300 lives over the past two months.

''We are engaged in that struggle and will not shrink from it,'' said Barak, who appeared on the verge of losing his temper at times in the lengthy interview. ''The other side has at this stage chosen the path of violence in order to gain by it.''

Palestinian leaders have accused Barak of turning his back on the peace process in response to the violence, and say the current uprising is an expression of widespread frustration over seven years of negotiations that have yet to bring Palestinians an independent state.

Barak, meanwhile, angrily denounced his right-wing opponents in Israel, saying they were pushing the false hope that the violence could be halted by unleashing the full might of Israel's army.

''I was in the army 35 years and I know exactly what is possible,'' said Barak, a retired general and Israel's most decorated soldier.

''The right wing in Israel has no military solution to the problem,'' said the prime minister. ''And I'm telling you, the right doesn't have a different political solution either.''

With his government coalition in tatters, Barak reluctantly agreed this past week to hold early elections.

Opinion polls have Barak trailing far behind his most likely opponent, hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu, the man Barak defeated in a landslide victory just 18 months ago.

Barak won a four-year term, but his allies in parliament deserted him in July, and the violence erupted at the end of September, a time when peace negotiations with the Palestinians were stalled.

The prime minister's top priority has been to reach a peace deal, and many analysts say he is unlikely to win re-election unless he can revive peace talks and achieve a settlement before the ballot, expected in April or May.

''We will not allow the other side to achieve anything by violence, and we will not close the window on the possibility of a political settlement for one moment, because in the last analysis that is the only way to solve the conflict,'' he said.

Barak called Thursday for a phased peace plan that would recognize a Palestinian state but put off the most sensitive issues, such as control of Jerusalem. A deal could be worked out before President Clinton leaves office next month, Israel's Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said Friday in Washington.

However, Palestinian leaders immediately rejected the offer, saying they want a final, comprehensive settlement that allows for the establishment of a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem and the return of millions of Palestinian refugees.

Barak suspended the peace talks after the violence erupted, and the two sides have not made any substantial progress toward resuming negotiations. However, Barak said he would be ready to sit down again with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat when the violence ends.

''Arafat is not a perfect partner (for peace) but he is the leader of the Palestinians,'' Barak said. ''There is no solution which is purely military.''

In violence Saturday, Israeli troops fatally shot a Palestinian man holding an electric drill that may have been mistaken for a weapon near the West Bank town of Ramallah, according to witnesses and the Palestinian Red Crescent.

The Israeli military said soldiers came under fire from the building where the 26-year-old man was working, and returned fire.

The intensity of the clashes and the number of Palestinian stone throwers have been declining in recent weeks, yet rarely a day passes without a fatality. A total of 294 people, the vast majority Palestinian, have been killed since the violence broke out at the end of September.

Also Saturday, Israel confiscated the VIP card of the head of the Palestinian General Intelligence Staff in the West Bank, Col. Tawfik Tirawi. His card was taken at a checkpoint as he left Jericho.

An Israeli military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tirawi was responsible for some of the recent Palestinian shooting attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. The VIP cards enable Palestinian officials to travel between the different Palestinian cities even at times when the Israelis have imposed travel restrictions on the rest of the Palestinian population.


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