The Associated Press
JERUSALEM - As Prime Minister Ehud Barak plotted his re-election campaign yesterday, the embattled Israeli leader said President Clinton's departure from office next month was not a deadline for a Mideast peace deal.
After 18 months in office focused on the goal of bringing home a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, Barak now faces early elections next spring and may need the success of at least a partial peace deal to persuade voters to re-elect him.
In violence yesterday, two Israeli soldiers were stabbed, one of them in the neck, at a roadblock just north of Jerusalem. The attacker got away, the army spokesman said. The stabbing prompted a shooting exchange between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen, and three Palestinians were wounded, according to army radio.
Also, the Israeli army arrested a Palestinian suspected of involvement in the bombing of a school bus in the Gaza Strip two weeks ago, army radio reported. The bombing killed two Israeli adults.
As of yesterday evening, no major clashes and no deaths were reported, one of the few days without a fatality since the violence erupted more than two months ago. Almost 300 people have been killed overall, most of them Palestinian.
At yesterday's cabinet meeting, Barak lashed out against those in his own party who have pressured him to come to an agreement before Clinton leaves the White House on Jan. 20, at the end of his second and final term.
"Every attempt to dictate dates to the prime minister is bad for Israel and damages how the peace process should be conducted," Barak told his ministers.
Barak is being squeezed on all sides. He faces early elections he had hoped to avoid, growing public dismay over his failure to halt the violence and a potential revolt from within his own party.
Israeli media reports have said that a leading figure from Barak's Labor party, parliament speaker Avraham Burg, may challenge Barak for party leadership if no peace deal is in sight by the end of Clinton's term.
In the quest to revive the moribund peace talks, Barak has suggested quickly negotiating a phased peace plan that would recognize a Palestinian state but put off the most sensitive issues, such as control of Jerusalem.
However, the Palestinians have demanded a comprehensive agreement that creates a Palestinian state in all, or virtually all, of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - areas Israel captured during the 1967 Mideast War.
In another development, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat denied reports that Israel and the Palestinians were engaged in secret talks. Arafat, on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, also said the Palestinian uprising would continue until his people's national goals were met.
"The Palestinian nation is ready to face all possibilities," he said.
Among those possibilities is the return of Barak's hard-line predecessor to power - Benjamin Netanyahu. Opinion polls have Barak trailing far behind Netanyahu, the man Barak defeated in a landslide victory last year.
Netanyahu was scheduled to return to Israel from abroad yesterday, but it was still unclear if he would return to politics to challenge the prime minister. Barak won a four-year term in 1999, but his allies in parliament deserted him in July, peace negotiations with the Palestinians stalled, and the violence erupted at the end of September.
Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, an architect of past accords with the Palestinians, said an overall peace deal could be wrapped up soon.
Beilin met with Clinton and U.S. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger on Friday in Washington, and said Clinton offered his help in pursuing an agreement during his last seven weeks in office.
Clinton "came into the meeting ... not just to say 'hi,' but to say that as his administration comes to an end they have placed the highest priority on foreign relations and that their top priority is our conflict," Beilin told Israel radio.
Also, top Barak aide and senior Israeli negotiator Gilead Sher said yesterday that Israel would cooperate fully with an international inquiry into the causes of the violence.
Israel has previously said that the fact-finding commission, agreed to at a Mideast summit in October, should not begin its work while violence was continuing and other parts of the summit agreement had not been implemented.
But Sher said that the investigating team would be welcome when it arrives in two weeks' time.
"Israel will cooperate fully. We expect that all the terms of reference, the mandate of the commission - will be agreed upon before it begins," Sher told Israel radio of the team led by former Sen. George Mitchell.