Barak loses key vote on peace deal with Syria


The prospects for rapid progress towards peace between Israel and Syria, poor already, dimmed further yesterday when the Israeli parliament gave preliminary backing to legislation that would hugely complicate the process of approving a peace deal.

Defying the instructions of the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ehud Barak, members of three parties in his multi-faction coalition voted with the hardline opposition Likud party to approve the initial reading of a bill requiring a "special majority" in Mr Barak's promised nationwide referendum on a Golan Heights-for-peace deal with Syria.

The government simply wants to put the terms of any peace deal to a public vote. However, under the new Likud legislation for the deal to be approved at least 50 per cent of all potential voters on the Israeli electoral register would have to give it their support.

Mr Barak tried to put a brave face on the parliamentary humiliation, noting that the bill would still require two further readings to become law. And his party colleagues - many of whom describe the proposed law as racist because it would nullify the strong support for a peace deal among Israel's Arab minority - asserted that they would garner the necessary votes to block it at its next reading.

But the Prime Minister could not escape the bitter truth that the coalition he assembled last summer, with the central aim of ensuring widespread parliamentary backing for peace moves, had failed him at its first real test. The 17-member Shas party, his key coalition partner, voted with the opposition, as did the smaller Yisrael Ba'aliya immigrant party and the National Religious Party.

"The government's days are numbered," crowed Mr Silvan Shalom, the Likud Knesset member who initiated the bill.

The Knesset vote coincided with another day of heavy fighting in Lebanon, during which five members of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army were killed when a Hizbullah missile scored a direct hit on their jeep. A Lebanese civilian also died.

The violence in Lebanon has been unrelenting so far this year and shows no sign of subsiding. Mr Barak had hoped to make rapid progress in peace talks with Syria and Lebanon, and thus to agree terms for an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon and an end to the fighting there. But Syria walked away from the negotiating table almost two months ago and, after yesterday's vote in the Knesset, may be even less inclined to return.

The US is pressing Damascus to come back to the talks, noting that President Clinton's term in office is drawing to a close and that time is short. But President Hafez al-Assad of Syria must now wonder whether Mr Barak has the parliamentary clout or public support to get any peace deal approved.

The Likud's Mr Shalom was unequivocal yesterday. "Mr Barak has no majority in the Knesset for giving up the Golan Heights," he said happily. "And he has no majority among the public either."