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NEWS ANALYSIS Knesset begins recess amid growing calls for new elections

JERUSALEM, July 28 (JTA) — The Knesset ended its summer session with a rush of activity — but without any dramatic results. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still intact, and the long-awaited redeployment accord with the Palestinians remains elusive. Just the same, this week’s activity seemed to augur a politically hot summer rather than the languid recess that some of the lawmakers, and perhaps Netanyahu himself, might have hoped for. Netanyahu spent the week battling on two domestic fronts. On Monday, he scored a victory when the Knesset rejected a series of no- confidence motions brought by the opposition over the premier’s handling of the peace process. Netanyahu and his aides then became engaged in vigorous efforts to head off another bill brought by the opposition — one calling for the dissolution of the Knesset and the holding of early elections, which are currently slated for the year 2000. The bill, which observers called the most serious threat so far to Netanyahu’s government, requires only a majority of those present for preliminary passage. If passed, the bill would still face three additional votes, each of which would require a majority of at least 61 to pass. In the run-up to Wednesday’s Knesset session, the premier dismissed the preliminary vote as “insignificant.” Nevertheless, political analysts said initial passage of the bill would be a significant blow to the premier’s prestige — a cloud would loom over Netanyahu as the bill’s proponents move forward on the legislation in the fall, when the Knesset reconvenes. Veteran parliamentary observers recalled that when a bill of this kind passed a preliminary vote on previous occasions, representatives of the two main parties would subsequently get together privately and begin looking for a date to hold new elections. Even if those precedents are not repeated this time, this week’s vote was important. In terms of political substance the bill represents for Netanyahu an ominous ad hoc coalescence of the left and right. Binyamin Alon, of the far-right Moledet Party, for instance, has signaled that he would join with the left wing, including the Arab parties, in voting to bring Netanyahu down. Both sides of this anti-Netanyahu front have cited, but for different reasons, his stance in the stalemated peace talks as the justification for seeking to bring him down. Within the coalition itself, members of the Third Way and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah parties were also contemplating a vote in favor of the bill — on the grounds that the prime minister’s oft-repeated promises to conclude an agreement with the Palestinian Authority by the end of the month were melting under the torrid summer sun. In the final hours of backroom haggling before the vote, legislators from former Foreign Minister David Levy’s Gesher Party joined the bill’s proponents, citing the latest figures on rising unemployment as evidence of the government’s failed economic and social policies. On the face of it, the hard-core right could allow itself a satisfied sigh of relief at the passing of the end-of-July deadline without the premier’s having concluded the accord with the Palestinians. Netanyahu is understood to have agreed, after months of hesitation and pressure, to the U.S. proposal under which Israel would withdraw from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for Palestinian steps to improve security. But there is still argument over the precise conditions under which 3 percent of that total would be turned over to the Palestinian Authority. At the urging of Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, Israel’s position reportedly softened this week, and direct talks with the Palestinian side resumed with a sense that the redeployment issue was nearing resolution. But Netanyahu, despite the urgings of Mordechai and other Cabinet moderates, was still digging in his heels over an Israeli demand that the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s parliament-in-exile, be convened to abrogate the anti-Israeli provisions of its charter. The far right, however, was not prepared to rely too confidently on this last hold-out by Netanyahu. As a result, some of its members favor the bill for new elections. The right’s distrust of Netanyahu on the redeployment has also prompted the National Religious Party and others in the “Greater Israel caucus” to insist that Netanyahu promise in writing that if he reaches an agreement with the Palestinian Authority during the three-month summer recess, he will bring it before a special session of the Knesset and regard the vote on it as vote of confidence in his government. But because Knesset rules say there cannot be a confidence vote during the recess, some on the right fear that Netanyahu may deliberately reach a deal with the Palestinians within the next three months, comfortable in the knowledge that the Knesset cannot vote to bring him down. All this hardly reflects an atmosphere of mutual trust among coalition members. But, as Netanyahu said Tuesday — and this, ultimately, is the bottom line — “let’s see them get 61 votes” to turn him out of office.

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