Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israeli experts are warning Prime Minister Ehud Barak that while the continuation of talks with the Palestinian Authority may be legal at this juncture, its morality is dubious.
Critics see President Clinton's last days in office, the forthcoming Israeli elections, and continuing Palestinian terrorism as reasons to suspend negotiations rather than to rush to an agreement.
Barak, a caretaker prime minister since he resigned on December 9, has insisted on pursuing an agreement despite three months of violent protests and shootings, an upsurge in terror attacks, and - in the view of many Israelis - the PA's refusal to accept far-reaching Israeli concessions or make any of its own.
In a letter to Barak, sent last week but leaked Monday, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein questioned whether the prime minister had the "moral authority" to continue in negotiations.
In his five-page letter, Rubinstein suggested that negotiating for an agreement with the PA on the eve of elections "needs to be done in such a manner that it will not raise suspicion ... that it was done because of time-dependent considerations."
He also questioned the PA's willingness and ability to implement agreements. Israel's judicial system, he said, had found an "absence [on the PA's part] of any real desire to establish a real judicial system in general, or legal relations" with Israel.
Barak Tuesday blasted Rubinstein for his "strange" and unprofessional advice. He accused the AG of expressing his own political, rather than professional, views.
In response, Rubinstein told reporters he had given Barak his "professional" and "legal" opinion and regretted that it had been exploited for political purposes.
Rubinstein, a religious Jew, has worked as a government legal advisor for many years, and was involved in peacemaking efforts with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in the early 1990s.
Yehezkel Dror, a political science professor at Hebrew University, said while Rubinstein's legal opinion was not binding, it should be "taken seriously."
Giving Barak the benefit of the doubt, Dror said Barak may genuinely be trying to take advantage of a "window of opportunity" in talks with the Palestinians. Any delay might extract a high price from Israel, he said.
If Barak initials an agreement, it is not binding on a future prime minister. Nonetheless, it "creates pressure on next government" because it has raised the expectations in Washington and among the Arabs, said Dror, who has acted as policy advisor to several prime ministers.
The "moral and political dilemma," he said, is for Barak to do as little as he can, while not missing out on any opportunity.
Prof. Shlomo Avineri, a "peace camp" activist, has also taken Barak to task.
Avineri told Israeli television it was unprecedented in Israel for a minority government, in transition and headed by a caretaker prime minister, to be "conducting negotiations on one of the essential and most important things that any Israeli government has ever discussed - not only peace, but [control of] Jerusalem and the Temple Mount."
In no democratic society in the world does a transition government "make far-reaching national decisions, certainly not decisions of historic proportions."
"[Barak] is being deceitful, and is walking on the fine line of the edge of democratic legitimacy," Avineri charged.
Meanwhile, an Israeli source said that no contacts would be made with the Palestinians in the current "atmosphere of terror."
However, no decision had been made not to have contacts with the Palestinians, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He added talks could only continue after a "complete cessation of violence" occurs.