Rabin expects narrow win in Knesset vote on accord Israeli opponents want referendum

September 22, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is counting on a paper-thin majority of the Israeli parliament to approve his agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"Put an end to the cycle of wars and terror," Mr. Rabin appealed as he opened a tumultuous debate yesterday in the parliament, or Knesset. All 120 members are to speak before the vote is taken late tonight or tomorrow.

Confident only of a 61-59 victory, Mr. Rabin is trying to shore up his votes and perhaps increase the margin while avoiding demands by some for a referendum on the agreement.

Opponents of the plan heckled Mr. Rabin mercilessly inside the Knesset, and 20,000 protesters gathered outside the building last night for a noisy demonstration.

The agreement would give Palestinians limited autonomy in some parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Although the pact was signed with great fanfare Sept. 13, both the PLO and the Israeli government are seeking approval from their parliamentary bodies.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat has promised to convene the full Palestine National Council, composed of nearly 400 members. Mr. Rabin called for an unusual Knesset session between the Jewish observances of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Israel has no constitution, and Mr. Rabin is not required to submit the plan to the Knesset. But he said yesterday that he will consider the vote "an expression of confidence in the government and its decisions."

But the arithmetic of that vote has become worrisome for him. His ruling coalition holds a majority of the Knesset's 120 seats. But the Shas religious party, with six Knesset members, has threatened to abstain or vote against the PLO pact.

If they do, Mr. Rabin may have to count on five votes from two tiny Israeli Arab parties. That would give him only the 61 votes needed for a majority, if there are no defections from his own party.

The 1 million Arabs living inside Israel are citizens and can vote. But the seven Israeli Arabs elected to the Knesset were not invited to join the coalition and are often excluded from crucial decisions.

It has been an unwritten rule that the government needs a "Jewish majority" for votes on Israeli-Arab issues.

The Hebrew daily Maariv said this week that Arab Knesset members "are not qualified to determine the fate of the state of Israel" and that any agreement approved with their help would "lack moral validity."

Faced with the prospect that the Arab parties may provide the key margin in this vote, Labor officials have suggested that the unwritten rule is racist.

Mr. Rabin and Mr. Peres have resisted the idea of a referendum, saying that it would freeze the autonomy process and negotiations with Arab states.

The spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has declined to say how he will instruct his party members to vote. Angered, officials of Mr. Rabin's Labor Party threatened the Shas Party yesterday with removal from the coalition.

Such a move could bring down the government but also would cost the ultra-Orthodox loss of considerable government funds and such perquisites as exemption from the military service for religious school students.

In presenting the plan to the Knesset yesterday, Mr. Rabin said, "On the eve of Yom Kippur . . . the government of Israel is offering the Jewish people a chance for peace and perhaps for an end to wars, violence and terror."

He rebutted suggestions that there are secret agreements that have not yet been revealed. He also continued the recent practice in which Israeli and PLO leaders describe the agreement in different terms.

The agreement sets out a strict timetable in which the Israeli army is to withdraw from all populated areas of the West Bank -- except Jerusalem -- within 10 months. But Mr. Rabin referred to that date yesterday as a "target."

He hinted that withdrawal from the rest of the West Bank is dependent on how smoothly the transition goes in the first areas scheduled to get autonomy this year.

He was followed to the rostrum by the leader of the opposition Likud bloc, Benjamin Netanyahu, who met a similarly hostile reception led by Mr. Rabin's Labor Party.

Mr. Netanyahu said the government had "promised a Palestinian state."

"You cannot hide the truth when the entire world knows it," he said. Over Mr. Rabin's objections, he contended that the agreement will dismantle the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

He accused the prime minister: "You haven't got the courage to say to the people, 'We will dismantle you.' We cannot trust that you will protect the Jews," he said.

Mr. Rabin walked out of the Knesset as Mr. Netanyahu continued talking.

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