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NEWS ANALYSIS Knesset begins recess amid growing calls for new elections

JERUSALEM, July 29 (JTA) — The Knesset has cast a dark cloud over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu”s political future. In a 60-6 vote Wednesday, the Israeli Parliament gave preliminary approval to a bill to dissolve the legislature, forcing new elections ahead of their slated 2000 date. Observers have called the bill the most serious threat so far to Netanyahu”s 2- year-old government, though the measure still faces three additional votes, each of which will require support from at least 61 of the 120 Knesset members. If the bill ultimately passes, new elections for the Knesset and for prime minister will be called. “Let”s see them get 61 votes,” Netanyahu said the day before the preliminary vote, which he dismissed as “insignificant.” Just the same, the Knesset ended its summer session in a defeat for the prime minister that seems to augur a politically hot three-month recess rather than the relaxed break that some of the lawmakers, and perhaps Netanyahu himself, might have hoped for. The move comes amid growing disenchantment from the opposition — and from within the governing coalition — with Netanyahu”s handling of the peace process. Indeed, as the Knesset adjourned this week, the long-awaited redeployment accord with the Palestinians remained elusive. No breakthrough was reported in the ongoing discussions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the U.S. proposal regarding a further Israeli redeployment from the West Bank. But the two sides agreed that the talks would continue. Netanyahu”s discomfiture, however, was softened somewhat by a furor that arose before the vote Wednesday around remarks made by Labor Knesset member Ori Orr, who disparaged Sephardi Jews, and Moroccan Jews in particular, in an interview with the Israeli daily Ha”aretz. The prime minister, addressing the Knesset, sought to focus public attention on Orr”s remarks and away from the early elections bill. Orr was roundly criticized across the political spectrum. Labor Party chairman Ehud Barak, who last year publicly apologized for the suffering Jews from Middle Eastern and North African Jews endured in the early years of the state, said it would take a long time to mend the damage Orr had caused the party. Barak immediately kicked Orr off a high-powered Labor delegation that is due to arrive in Washington on Sunday. While Orr later apologized, the controversy over his remarks momentarily stole the thunder from the opposition”s achievement on the Knesset floor. Netanyahu”s efforts in the run-up to Wednesday”s vote to persuade coalition rebels not to break ranks failed abysmally. Together with the chief coalition whip, Likud Knesset member Meir Sheetrit, the premier ordered coalition members to stay away from the vote. But three members of the Third Way Party voted for the bill, and the fourth member, Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, made it clear that he, too, supported the measure. His position as a Cabinet member barred Kahalani from voting with the opposition. Two former members of Netanyahu”s Cabinet — David Levy and Dan Meridor – – also joined with the opposition. Levy and three other members of his Gesher Party cited the latest unemployment figures as evidence of the government”s failed economic and social policies. Likud Knesset member Meridor, with his vote, signaled for the first time publicly his irrevocable breach with the premier, and, in the view of many observers, his intention to challenge Netanyahu for the premiership. 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, fully intended to join with the left wing, including the Arab parties, in voting to bring Netanyahu down. Only Netanyahu”s last-minute decision to boycott the vote prevented this hemorrhaging on his right flank — Moledet”s two votes would have brought the total in support of early elections to 62. 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. Members of the Yisrael Ba”Aliyah Party, which is headed by Trade and Industry Minister Natan Sharansky, were also contemplating voting for 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. But they, too, were saved, for the moment, by the boycott tactic. 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 holdout by Netanyahu. As a result, some of its members favored 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. While the Netanyahu government is still intact, it”s unlikely to be a peaceful summer for the premier as the early election bill”s proponents prepare to move forward on the legislation in the fall, when the Knesset reconvenes.