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Mired in scandal, Barak renews his effort for peace

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak struggled Sunday to stanch the political damage flowing from a campaign fundraising scandal that could result in criminal charges against some of his closest aides.

Barak undertook a reinvigorated diplomatic drive, launching "marathon" talks with the Palestinians and flying off to Cairo to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In Israel, newspapers published interviews in which he assured the public he is still a reliable leader.

"You could squeeze all the people in Israel who think I ever lied to them into a phone booth," he told the top-selling Yediot Aharonot in Sunday's editions.

But numerous analysts and commentators _ and many people within Barak's government _ are skeptical and deeply disillusioned. Barak's credibility, they say, has been greatly damaged when he most needed it: when he must appear strong before Arab adversaries with whom he is negotiating peace, and honest before Israelis who must believe in the peace he negotiates.

The state audit found that the One Israel coalition, led by Barak's Labor Party, used "non-profit" foundations to illegally channel millions of dollars, most of it from foreign donors, to bankroll Barak's landslide victory last May.

It was also reported Sunday that Yitzhak Herzog, Barak's Cabinet secretary and a veteran Labor insider who engineered much of the fundraising, might be suspended from his post.

Losing any credibility deprives Barak of a valuable asset as he pushes for a historic breakthrough in negotiations with Syria, Israel's most implacable Arab foe, and the Palestinians.

In Cairo, meanwhile, Barak conferred with Mubarak for about an hour and a half at Mubarak's Ittihadiya Palace. The two emerged afterward and appeared relaxed.

"I am strongly determined to make sure that the golden opportunity we are facing, both on the Palestinian track and the Syrian and Lebanese track as well, will not be lost," Barak said at a news conference.

Earlier Sunday, near Jerusalem, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators began what they said will be an intensified schedule of talks aimed at meeting a Feb. 13 deadline for a preliminary comprehensive agreement _ even as both sides repeated their assertions that the deadline probably cannot be met.

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