Israel’s beleaguered Prime Minister Ehud Barak overcame one challenge today when his government survived a no-confidence vote, but was faced with another when a little-known opposition lawmaker won an upset victory for the presidency.
The victory of Iranian-born Moshe Katsav of the opposition Likud Party spelled a humiliating end to ex-Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ half-century political career and dealt peace efforts another blow following the collapse of peace talks at the Camp David summit last week.
As a member of the hawkish Likud party, Katsav opposes far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians, including the creation of a Palestinian state.
Hours later, Barak’s teetering minority government survived a motion of no-confidence over his willingness to make land concessions to the Palestinians.
Parliament voted 50-50 with eight abstentions, a result that fell short of the 61 votes needed in the 120-seat Knesset to topple the government. Some deputies did not attend the session.
It was the second time Barak had survived a no-confidence vote in less than a month. Both votes were called over his attempts to secure a peace deal with the Palestinians.
A Long Reprieve
Despite the new blows to his prestige, Barak is now free to pursue his peace agenda unhampered by parliamentary maneuvers. The Knesset does not meet again until October, giving Barak time to build support for the concessions to the Palestinians proposed at talks at Camp David, especially handing them some control over East Jerusalem.
The Israelis and Palestinians have set a deadline of Sept. 13 for a final peace agreement resolving thorny issues including control of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees who want to return to their former homes in what is now Israel.
Barak told the legislators that while he could not command a majority in parliament for a peace accord now, he was confident the mood would shift once a deal is presented to the Israeli people. He has long maintained that he has popular support, despite his political problems.
In a voice husky with emotion, Barak accused the opposition and defectors from his coalition of following their own narrow interests, rather than the public good.
“I turn to each and every one of you and say, ‘Rise above small-minded politics in order to bring peace to Israel,’” Barak told the legislators before the vote.
Hanan Ashrawi, a legislator in the Palestinian parliament, said the three-month respite gives Barak a chance to move more decisively in the peace negotiations.
“They can rescue peace from the jaws of disaster should they wish to use this time wisely,” she told Associated Press Television News.
Barak commands the loyalty of only 42 Knesset members, but another 20 have said they would not topple his government over peace moves.
Among those abstaining in the no-confidence vote was Barak’s disgruntled foreign minister, David Levy, who has accused Barak of shutting him out of the peace negotiations and making too many concessions.
Levy has threatened to resign by Wednesday unless the prime minister makes a serious effort to bring the opposition Likud party into the government. During today’s vote, Levy and Barak sat side-by-side in the row in the plenum reserved for Cabinet ministers, but did not speak to each other.
A Protest Against Peacemaking
Earlier Monday, Peres, a former prime minister, was defeated by Iranian-born Moshe Katsav, a legislator from Likud, in a stunning upset. Peres had been considered a shoo-in and was the clear favorite of the Israeli public, according to informal opinion surveys.
Israel’s presidency is largely ceremonial, but the incumbent — Ezer Weizman, who was forced to resign because of fraud allegations — has used the prestige of the post in support of Mideast peace efforts.
Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who led his reluctant nation to negotiations with the Palestinians in 1993, had been expected to turn the presidency into a platform for assisting the negotiators.
Hawkish legislators said today’s presidential vote was a protest against Barak’s peace policies and that they did not expect his government to survive much longer.
“I think this is another stage in the revolution that will take place in the next few months when there will be elections and the right-wing camp will return to power,” said Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party, one of three factions that quit Barak’s coalition ahead of this month’s inconclusive Mideast summit at Camp David.
Responding to the no-confidence motion, Barak told parliament he still enjoys the broad backing of the Israeli people. He acknowledged that at the moment he does not have a majority in parliament for a peace agreement, but said he expects the mood to shift under public pressure once an actual accord is presented.
“The people of Israel will see who does not want a responsible government that will take the country forward,” he told opposition legislators.
People’s Favorite, Denied
Peres had been the front-runner in the race for president, and was the public’s favorite. However, in two rounds of voting today, Katsav won 63 votes in the 120-member parliament, compared to only 57 for Peres.
After the first round, Peres wandered slowly back into the plenum, his hands in his pocket and an expression of shock and hurt on his face.
Legislator Eli Goldschmidt of Peres’ One Israel faction said it was difficult to see the pain of Israel’s elder statesman. “Apparently, a person’s greatness does not necessarily translate into an ability to win elections,” he said.
Katsav, the jubilant winner, promised in an acceptance speech to promote national unity — a difficult task in Israel, a nation rife with divisions between rich and poor, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, new immigrants and veteran residents.
Katsav started his career as Israel’s youngest mayor in 1969, when he was 24. He was elected to the parliament in 1977 and rose to tourism minister and deputy prime minister. Born in Iran, he presented himself as the representative of Israelis of Middle East origin.
A Topsy-Turvy Political Career
Peres had counted on the support of many of the 22 religious lawmakers. When he was prime minister, his governments were consistently generous to the ultra-Orthodox, a chronically impoverished sector of Israel’s society; in addition, Peres’ wife, Sonya, is herself Orthodox.
However, officials in the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said all 17 legislators of the faction supported Katsav. They said that on Sunday, Shas’ spiritual leader, nonagenarian Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, had a vision that Katsav was favored by the heavens. As a result, Kadouri’s aides called nearly all legislators and urged them to vote for Katsav.
Also, the ultra-Orthodox have identified more with the Likud’s foreign policy in recent years, and many see Katsav — who himself is religiously observant — as the more sympathetic candidate.
Peres has had a topsy-turvy political career, holding nearly all of Israel’s top jobs over the years, but also losing four of five elections for prime minister.
He served as prime minister three times, twice succeeding his longtime political rival, Yitzhak Rabin, and once in a rotation agreement after a deadlocked election. He is seen both as a visionary marching far ahead of his people and a merciless politician.
In 1993, Peres was the driving force behind Israel’s breakthrough agreement of mutual recognition with the PLO, and he negotiated subsequent interim peace agreements.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report