Two small, Arab-dominated parties in the Knesset have managed to accomplish what weeks of growing international pressure and criticism failed to achieve.
In a surprise move aimed at saving his government, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his Cabinet decided Monday to freeze a controversial plan to confiscate some 140 acres of mostly Arab-owned land in eastern Jerusalem.
The decision came during an emergency Cabinet session Monday after the two parties, the Hadash Communist Party and the Arab Democratic Party, introduced no-confidence motions in the Knesset.
The motions seemed certain to bring down Rabin’s government when the opposition Likud bloc, which in principle supports the confiscations, said it would back the motions.
The Palestine Liberation Organization welcomed the decision to suspend the land confiscation plans. The plans had been condemned internationally and threatened to damage Israel’s ties with its Arab neighbors.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the Clinton administration thought the action “would be helpful,” given that the original plan “posed difficulties.”
It also led to the suspension of a planned Arab League summit scheduled to convene in Morocco this weekend to discuss how to respond to the confiscations.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres announced the surprise Cabinet decision at the Knesset podium shortly after debate on the no-confidence motions began.
He also announced that a ministerial committee headed by Rabin would be established to review land expropriations.
Peres lashed out at Likud for supporting the motions.
“Toppling the government is more important [to the opposition] than keeping the unity of the country around Jerusalem,” Peres said.
After Press made the announcement, the Arab Democratic Party and the Hadash Communist Party withdrew their motions.
But then, members of the opposition lashed out at the government for reversing course on land expropriations, saying they planned to submit their own no- confidence motion next week.
Likud faction leader Moshe Katsav said the day’s events had “removed the mask and exposed the ugly face” of the Rabin government. He attacked the prime minister for capitulating to the Arab parties and to PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
“How much more can we disgrace the symbol of the State of Israel and the people of Israel?” he said.
The opposition has submitted dozens of no-confidence motions since Rabin’s government came to power in July 1992. But few came as close to toppling the government as those scheduled for a vote Monday.
Prior to Peres’ announcement in the Knesset, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that he would support the motions, even if he supported the land confiscations in principle.
“If we can topple this government for the sake of the nation’s future, we should,” he told Israel Radio.
With minutes to go before the debate, it was still unclear whether the government had enough votes to defeat the motions.
It was at that point that Rabin convened the special Cabinet meeting at which the surprise decision was reached.
The confiscation plans had drawn an increasing barrage of criticism over the past few weeks from Israel’s Arab neighbors and a number of Western countries.
Last week, the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at getting Israel to suspend its confiscation policy.
Shortly after Peres announced the Cabinet decision, the PLO welcomed the new development.
“It seems that the Palestinian, Arab and international efforts have paid off,” said an Arafat spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh. “We hope that this decision is true and we hope that Israel will carry out its decision to freeze the confiscation orders.”
Earlier in the day, Palestinian officials convened a news conference in eastern Jerusalem, where they warned that continued Israeli expropriations of land could have dangerous consequences for the peace process.
Hours before the Knesset debate on the no-confidence motions, Peres and Arafat held an emergency meeting in the Gaza Strip to discuss the land confiscation policy and the pace of ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
After their meeting, Peres told reporters that the two sides had agreed to speed up negotiations on an Israeli army redeployment in the West Bank in order to meet a july 1 deadline for implementing the next phase of Palestinian self- rule.
He added that the Israeli negotiators would do whatever they could to meet the July deadline, “unless unforeseen disagreements will occur.”
The two sides also announced a number of confidence-building measures, including an offer from Israel to increase by 4,000 the number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel, bringing the total to 35,000.
In addition, Israel will give the Palestinians control over three additional areas of civilian affairs in the West Bank: agriculture, statistics and local government.
The two sides also announced that starting next week, good from egypt and Jordan will be allowed into the Palestinian autonomous areas via the Rafah and Allenby terminals.