The diplomatic reprieve that followed Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip appears to be over, with Ariel Sharon feeling political pressure both at home and from abroad.
The surprise ouster last week of the prime minister's coalition partner, Labor Party chief, Shimon Peres, has thrown Israeli politics into disarray. Peres' successor, trade union leader Amir Peretz, has made clear that he'll take Labor out of the government -- either by agreement or by backing a Knesset no-confidence motion on Sharon.
"The question is not if but when the coalition will fall apart," a Sharon confidant said Sunday. "Peretz is most definitely not Peres."
Sharon long had hinted that his Likud Party's alliance with Labor was a marriage of convenience to facilitate the summer pullout from Gaza, but a split this early is more than inconvenient when it comes to peacemaking with the Palestinians. According to the confidant, Sharon had intended to wait for the outcome of January parliamentary elections in the Palestinian Authority to assess the prospects of new negotiations.
The question is whether Hamas will take part in the Palestinian vote, and whether its electoral gains will be so great as to rule out any long-term Israeli-Palestinian accord.
A senior U.S. State Department official, speaking before a visit to Israel this week by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said there was concern that diplomacy would be hamstrung if Sharon's government is toppled and Israel goes to early elections.
"What we don't want here is to be kept in a holding pattern," the official told reporters.
Impatience was showing in Gaza, where James Wolfensohn, special envoy for the "Quartet" of foreign peace mediators, was quoted as saying he could end his mission in protest this week, unless there is progress in talks on Palestinian border crossings from Gaza to the outside world.
"I do believe that Secretary Rice is very keen to make sure that the deal is done," he said.
For her part, Rice praised Sharon's steadfastness and endorsed his demand that the Palestinian Authority meet its obligations under the "road map" peace plan to crack down on terrorism.
But she added, "The Israelis have very important road map obligations, and we will talk about that, too."
"Israel should do nothing to prejudge final status or the outlines of a final settlement," Rice said, an apparent allusion to Israel's expansion of West Bank settlements and, perhaps, its construction of a security fence that dips into West Bank land that the Palestinians claim.
The security fence won praise from a different corner of U.S. politics. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who was visiting Israel with her husband, ex-President Bill Clinton, and daughter, Chelsea. They were there to attend memorial events marking the 10th anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.
"I have to support the Israeli government decision to use this as a means to try and prevent terrorists from coming across," she said. "The Palestinian people have to help prevent terrorism. They have to change attitudes. It has to start with the Palestinian Authority and go throughout the entire society."
Former President Clinton also had words of support for Sharon and his "astonishingly courageous withdrawal from Gaza."
He warned Israel not to continue with unilateral measures such as the Gaza withdrawal, saying, "As a strategy for the long term, the idea that Israel can proceed unilaterally forever, without a cooperative relationship with a successful Palestinian state, it seems to me highly premature to make that concession."
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