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