Barak holds onto power, pledges to complete peace treaty

 

Battered by a gleeful opposition and woefully short of political allies, the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ehud Barak, limped yesterday towards a blessed parliamentary summer recess, holding onto power by the skin of his teeth.

In a Knesset motion of no-confidence, the opposition parties mustered only 50 of the 61 votes they needed to force early elections, and so failed, in the words of one Likud member, "to do the double on Barak", having defeated the prime minister's candidate for president, Mr Shimon Peres, earlier in the day.

Although he heads a minority coalition, and is having no luck in recruiting new allies to rebuild the majority he lost on the eve of last month's Camp David peace summit, Mr Barak is vowing to use the next few months to try to complete a permanent peace treaty with the Palestinians. Should he do so, he indicated to parliament yesterday, he would likely call elections himself, confident of being returned with a strengthened majority.

Having survived yesterday's no-confidence motion, the prime minister can theoretically relax a little.

The process of recalling parliament during the "summer" recess - which actually lasts until late October - is fairly complicated.

But the Likud opposition is promising no respite. As soon as the conditions are ripe, said a Likud Knesset member, Mr Silvan Shalom, yesterday, "we will call for the reconvening of the Knesset" and try again to vote Mr Barak out of office.

Israeli politics is now in a situation that is bizarre even by its own impressively frantic standards. Opinion polls suggest that most Israelis may be ready to support the kind of peace treaty - involving a sharing of rights in Jerusalem with the Palestinians - that Mr Barak is trying to engineer with the Palestinian President, Mr Yasser Arafat.

President Clinton is doing everything in his power to help achieve such a deal. The Palestinian Authority is leaning towards deferring its September 13th deadline for declaring independent statehood.

But Mr Barak is struggling to stay in office long enough to seal the deal, under constant fire not only from the opposition benches, but from within as well.

His Foreign Minister, Mr David Levy, is threatening to resign tomorrow, the last day of the parliamentary session, unless Mr Barak invites the Likud into a "unity government". The preliminary reading of a bill to dissolve the Knesset is also scheduled for tomorrow, but that bill would require a lengthy process of further readings before becoming law.

But the Likud, publicly at least, is not interested.

Mr Ephraim Sneh, the deputy defence minister, one of Mr Barak's closest aides, yesterday urged the prime minister to call new elections now, remarking that if the government could not get Mr Peres elected president, it could hardly expect to push controversial peace moves through the parliament. Mr Barak, however, rejected the suggestion.