Knesset aborts Netanyahu's comeback - for the moment

 

In a dramatic vote at one o'clock this morning, Israel's parliament aborted the planned political comeback of former prime minister Mr Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel is to hold elections for a new prime minister - not general elections - on February 6th, and Mr Netanyahu will not now be among the contenders.

Mr Netanyahu, who had urged the 120 members of the Knesset to vote for the dissolution of parliament and general elections, hoping to sweep back into power at the helm of a coalition moulded in his image, was rebuffed.

Worried about their own political futures in unpredictable general elections, and angry that Mr Netanyahu had tried to impose his will on them after suddenly returning from 19 months in retirement, the politicians voted down the early elections bill, by 69 votes to 49.

Instead, Israelis will vote in seven weeks' time for a new prime minister only; the composition of the parliament will remain unchanged. The outgoing Prime Minister Mr Ehud Barak, who resigned earlier this month, will seek re-election on the strength of a peace deal he hopes to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Gen Ariel Sharon, whom Mr Netanyahu had planned to try to oust today as leader of the opposition Likud party, is likely to be Mr Barak's main rival.

Ironically, the Knesset did approve the so-called "Netanyahu Law", which would enable Mr Netanyahu to compete in these prime-ministerial elections even though he is not a sitting member of parliament.

But Mr Netanyahu made clear in repeated interviews throughout the day that he was not interested in mounting a challenge unless the House voted for full general elections.

Parliament was too unwieldy and too divided, he argued. And given the ongoing confrontation with the Palestinians an entire new Knesset was required.

Mr Netanyahu had been a shoo-in to oust Mr Sharon as Likud leader, and is 20 per cent ahead of Mr Barak in the personal popularity stakes, championing a hardline, no-concessions attitude to the Palestinians. While his comeback may have been derailed for now, Israeli politics remains deeply unstable.

With the Knesset hopelessly splintered into well over a dozen factions, whoever wins the prime-ministerial election on February 6th will have a hard time maintaining a workable coalition. Mr Netanyahu can be expected to mount another leadership challenge sooner rather than later.

AFP adds: Mr Netanyahu was barred under existing election law from contesting the leadership race because he is not a sitting MP.

But the former Likud leader was vehemently opposed to the so-called "Bibi bill" and had insisted yesterday he would not run for prime minister unless there were also legislative polls.

"I'm not prepared to make any zig-zag on this matter," he said, reluctant to take over the helm of an unruly and fragmented parliament that would face any new prime minister without new general elections.

The elections bill was almost certain to fail when the powerful ultra-Orthodox Jewish party Shas - frequently a king-maker in Israeli coalition governments - announced yesterday its 17 MPs would vote against.

Shas, which quit Barak's coalition government in July over his peace policies, backs Mr Netanyahu but feared it would lose some of its 17 seats if general elections were held.

Mr Netanyahu (51) left politics after his crushing defeat to Mr Barak in May 1999.