Early Israel elections inevitable, Barak's supporters and detractors say

JERUSALEM - Early elections over a peace treaty with the Palestinians are inevitable, Ehud Barak's supporters and detractors alike said Tuesday, a day after the Israeli prime minister's embarrassing double defeat in parliament.

On Monday, Barak's candidate for president, Nobel laureate Shimon Peres, was defeated in an upset vote in parliament, and just a few hours later the hawkish opposition won one no-confidence vote on Barak's peace policies and tied a second.

The parliamentary challenges fell short of toppling the government, but made it painfully clear to Barak, elected by a landslide just 15 months ago, that he will be unable to pass a hotly contested peace treaty with the Palestinians in this Knesset.

Leaders of Israel's peace camp said Barak should use the three-month Knesset recess to try to conclude a deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, then call elections, turning the vote into a peace referendum.

''During these three months, the prime minister has to make a heroic attempt to complete the negotiations with the Palestinians ... and to initiate early elections,'' said Yossi Sarid, leader of the dovish Meretz party, a partner in the coalition.

In an interview with Israel television, Barak said he did not anticipate early elections, and that he intended on rebuilding his government in coming weeks.

The next regularly scheduled elections are in 2003.

Barak has said there will be no letup in the drive for an agreement, and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Tuesday that both sides are in daily contact, even after July's Mideast summit at Camp David ended inconclusively.

Erekat said Camp David was not a failure, and that both sides broke new ground. At the U.S. presidential retreat, Israel offered the Palestinians limited sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem and land swaps in exchange for some West Bank territory. Arafat insisted on full sovereignty over all of traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, and the talks broke off.

The Palestinians are worried by Barak's domestic difficulties, said Nabil Amr, a Palestinian Cabinet minister. ''If he wastes more time with hesitation, he will have no agreement and no government,'' Amr told Al-Jazeera television.

Arafat, who was in Algeria and was also traveling to Sudan as part of ongoing trips to push the Palestinian cause, said Tuesday he is determined to declare a Palestinian state on Sept. 13, the treaty deadline, even if no agreement is reached.

Still, Palestinian officials have hinted that a delay is possible. President Clinton said last week that he opposed any unilateral moves and warned of repercussions.

If peace talks fail, Barak would have little difficulty restoring his broad-based coalition. Three hawkish factions that defected ahead of Camp David in protest over anticipated concessions would likely be eager to return to the government.

However, as long as there is a real possibility for a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Barak will have difficulty mustering a majority in parliament.

Monday's votes in parliament showed that the alliance between the right wing, the religious parties and Russian immigrants, which ruled the country under former right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has re-emerged.

The day began with Peres' humiliating defeat in the presidential election.

No less ominous for Barak were two no-confidence votes later Monday that made it clear no peace agreement will be passed by the present parliament.

In the first ballot, on Camp David, the government tied 50-50, with eight abstention. In the second, over Barak's proposals to give the Palestinians a say in running Jerusalem, the opposition won 53-48, with seven abstentions. The government did not fall because 61 votes are needed to pass no-confidence motions.

Barak faces another difficult day Wednesday when an opposition bill to call early elections is expected to pass in a preliminary vote. However, three more readings are required that could only take place after the recess, in late October.

Israel radio's political commentator, Hanan Kristall, said the Knesset is tying Barak's hands. ''He can't do anything. He is a totally lame duck,'' Kristall said.

The defectors have urged Barak to form a so-called government of national unity with the Likud. Barak's disgruntled foreign minister, David Levy, who is considering leaving the government, is also pressing Barak to bring in Likud.

Likud chairman Ariel Sharon said a national consensus can be achieved only if the prime minister agrees that Jerusalem remain undivided under Israeli sovereignty.

''He does not have a majority and I think we will have to go to elections,'' Sharon told reporters.


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