THE ISRAELI Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, drew a bleak line last night under the peace process with the Palestinians that had begun with a fanfare of hope in Oslo seven years ago. He made clear that he no longer regards Yasser Arafat as a negotiating partner, for the foreseeable future.
Mr Barak began consulting about an emergency government within hours of the lynching of Israeli soldiers by Palestinians and the helicopter strikes on Ramallah and Gaza. The first guest invited to his offices in Tel Aviv was Ariel Sharon, the Likud leader whose visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem two weeks earlier lit the tinder of violence.
Although Oslo veterans such as the Justice Minister, Yossi Beilin, had vowed to thwart Mr Sharon's entry into a Labour-led government, the Prime Minister's main focus was on the home front. His priority was to close Israeli ranks, even if that played badly before world opinion.
He is seeking a united country to face bigger challenges - from the Palestinians on his doorstep, from Hizbollah in Lebanon to the north and from the kind of shadowy Arab forces behind the suicide bombing of a United States warship in Aden yesterday. Israeli intelligence services are on the alert for terrorist attacks in Israel, and are taking note of Washington reports that Saddam Hussein has begun moving a crack Iraqi division towards the Jordanian border.
A unity government, as Mr Barak sees it, will also make it easier to restrain Jewish extremists tempted to retaliate for the lynchings. He is anxious to tone down partisan rhetoric, which can soon slide into incitement to violence.
He said last night he would never lose hope of peace, but dismissed claims Israel had effectively declared war: "It is not one in a million of what we can do if we are really at war."
The signs last night were that his more dovish Labour colleagues were coming round. One of them, the parliamentary Speaker, Avraham Burg, endorsed the opening to the right.Israeli peace activists are painfully aware, none the less, that they are among the first victims of this nasty new war.
Israel's left wing had believed it was finally possible to build a new relationship with the Palestinians. It would take time, there would be setbacks, but they felt they were on the road. The Oslo accords marked a historic breakthrough. …