Knesset Battle over Peace Plan Make Decide Fate of Labor Regime

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s battle to win Knesset approval of the historic accord signed in Washington with the Palestine Liberation Organization last week is being seen as a test of his government’s strength and longevity.

Rabin, who has characterized the vote as an expression of confidence in his government, was expected to survive it, albeit by the most slender of majorities.

But it was less clear whether the Labor Party leader would be able to muster a Jewish majority in the vote, which was expected to be held late Wednesday or Thursday, or whether his victory would depend on Arab members of the Knesset.

The Knesset began debating the accord on Palestinian self-rule Tuesday while demonstrators against the peace agreement gathered in the rose garden opposite the Knesset and vowed they would remain there until the vote was cast.

Some 2,000 police were on hand to control the crowds.

The debate began with a lengthy and dramatic plea for support by the prime minister, who said the historic opportunity for peace must not be missed after decades of untold bloodshed and suffering.

“On the eve of Yom Kippur 5754, the government of Israel is offering the Jewish people a chance for peace, and perhaps for an end to wars, violence and terror,” he said.

Rabin said the plan was a test of the PLO’s intentions and would pose little danger to Israel’s security.

He also emphasized that the welfare and protection of the roughly 130,000 Jewish residents in the Gaza Strip and West Bank town of Jericho — where the self-rule accord is first to go into effect — would remain the responsibility of Israeli security forces.

NETANYAHU SPEECH IRKS RABIN

Rabin, at one point, was interrupted by a Knesset opposition member, who shouted that Israel’s negotiating partners were “bloodthirsty killers.”

Toward the end of his address, two rightwing youths in the visitors’ gallery began shouting slogans and waving a PLO flag before they were ejected.

Likud party Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, replying for the opposition, said he believes the government is pursuing peace at any price.

He said the agreement will inexorably lead to violence and the creation of a Palestinian state that will threaten Israel’s security.

Netanyahu said the blueprint would result in PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s entering Jerusalem and triumphantly claiming the Temple Mount as Palestinian turf.

Rabin walked out in anger during Netanyahu’s speech.

The debate was billed by Knesset Speaker Shevah Weiss as one of the most important assemblies in the history of the nation. Indeed, the warnings of apocalypse from those opposing as well as supporting the peace agreement lent credence to Weiss’ claim.

On Tuesday night, a few thousand Bnei Akiva students who were holding a prayer vigil at the Western wall marched to the Knesset to join the other demonstrators.

The purpose of the protest was “to tell this government they’re going in the wrong direction,” Bob Lang, one of the demonstrators, told Israel Television.

All 120 members of the Knesset were being allowed to speak before the vote.

One by one, Knesset members against the agreement said the government had no right to gamble on Israel’s future with a partner that has been committed to Israel’s destruction.

The PLO, they said, will be unable to control Palestinian extremists violently opposed to the accord in the short term and will not honor the territorial limits negotiated with Israel in the long term.

“We will all pay the price” for this “terrible mistake,” warned Knesset member Ze’ev “Benny” Begin of Likud, whose father, the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, orchestrated the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt.

SHAS PARTY HOLDING OUT

Supporters countered by saying Israel could not afford to pass up the chance to embrace a peaceful future and would not be vulnerable under the terms of the agreement.

The Jewish people are entitled not just to pain and to warfare, said Communications Minister Shulamit Aloni, leader of the dovish Meretz bloc. “We are also entitled to live,” she said. The agreement is a “first step for the future of peace.”

Rabin was particularly eager to win the support of the fervently Orthodox Shas party.

If the Sephardic party’s six Knesset members vote to endorse the agreement, the government would have the support of a clear Jewish majority and not have to depend on the Knesset’s Arab members.

Rabin was scheduled to meet Wednesday with the spiritual leader of Shas, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who met earlier in the week with Deputy Defense Minister Mordechai Gur.

When Rabin informed the Knesset that the vote would be considered a vote of confidence in his government, he formally put Shas on notice that opposing the agreement would spell the end of the party’s coalition alliance with Labor and Meretz.

Shas, for its part, has called for a referendum on the peace agreement within six months — but only if all of the opposition parties back that call.

But the referendum idea appeared Tuesday to be a non-starter, since neither Likud nor Labor exhibited much enthusiasm for it.

While Likud and the other opposition parties were sounding the alarm against the accord, the latest polls show public support for the plan has grown to about 60 percent.

The polls indicate that the Israeli public does not believe in the vulnerability of Israel, a point emphasized by the opponents of the accord.

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