Barak's coalition splintering

Call for early election threatens peace effort

June 08, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - In the most serious political challenge yet to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel's parliament took the first step yesterday toward calling early elections, and did so with the support of some members of Barak's ruling coalition.

Barak reacted by vowing to sack the coalition members who had voted against him and jettison the broad parliamentary alliance that he once hoped would give him solid backing for peace deals with Syria and the Palestinians.

Sounding a defiant tone, Barak said his reshuffled coalition would have "totally different modes of action."

"I received a sweeping mandate from the people of this country, and I intend to act on this mandate," he said, predicting that the move for early elections would fail.

But in creating a government coalition of politicians he can count on, Barak stands to lose his broad-based majority in parliament and be forced to rely on Israeli-Arab members to win approval of peace agreements.

Yesterday's 61-to-48 vote, on an opposition bill to call early elections in two to three months, was only preliminary. The legislation goes to a committee and would have to pass three more times to take effect. The next vote may come late next month.

Many members who voted for early elections don't really want to run again so soon and intended only to send a message.

But commentators saw in the vote a growing political weakness that will require deft maneuvering by Barak to reverse it. Fighting for its survival, the government may be distracted from the peace process as talks resume in Washington next week.

The reasons for yesterday's vote were a combination of hardball pork-barrel politics, fears about concessions Barak plans to make to the Palestinians, and opponents seeing an opportunity to damage the prime minister.

Almost since he formed his government, Barak has been mired in disputes with the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which blatantly sought to extract more money for its schools in exchange for backing Barak on key issues.

Signaling he was fed up, Barak cut off negotiations with Shas early this week. When the right-wing opposition put forward bills for early elections, Shas voted against him.

Joining Shas were two other coalition members - the National Religious Party and the Russian immigrant-based Yisrael B'Aliya led by former Soviet human rights activist Natan Sharansky. Both oppose decisions by Barak on the peace process, particularly on returning land to the Palestinians.

One of the bill's sponsors, Avigdor Lieberman of the right-wing Israel Is Our Home party, said his main purpose was to "halt the peace process as Prime Minister Barak is conducting it."

Barak faced yesterday's political crisis just two weeks after drawing widespread approval for his accelerated withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon - a move that resulted in the deaths of Lebanese civilians but no deaths of Israeli soldiers.

"We have one common goal - to bring an end to this government and have early elections," said Silvan Shalom, one of the sponsors of yesterday's bills.

Menachem Hofnung, a political science professor at Hebrew University, said of Barak, "At the moment, he's surely weakened," and whether he can rally "depends on how he plays his cards."

"My hunch is that Barak will prevail," he said.

Barak didn't rule out taking Shas back into the coalition, although he made clear that it would be under new terms requiring loyalty.

Hofnung suggested Barak might appease Shas by finding a new job for its most determined opponent within the coalition. This is liberal Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, who, as education minister, has blocked Shas' bid for money and power through increased funding for the institutions it runs.

The vote comes at a pivotal time in the peace process. With only a few effective months left in the Clinton presidency, the U.S. administration has summoned Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat, along with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, to Washington next week to breathe life into negotiations on a framework accord.

Finance Minister Avraham Shochat acknowledged that the political turmoil in Israel would get in the way.

"Arafat saw the result of this vote," he said. "No question it's a problem for the prime minister."

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