Netanyahu Gets Reprieve from Early Elections Vote

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to give himself a reprieve by delaying a Knesset vote that threatened to topple his government this week.

The reprieve came with the help of one of his coalition members, the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, which requested that a Knesset vote on a bill calling for early elections be considered a no-confidence motion.

Under Knesset rules, the group’s request put off Monday’s Knesset vote by at least one week.

But the Labor Party, which submitted the bill calling for new elections, agreed to a delay of an additional week in order to avoid holding the vote during President Clinton’s planned visit to the region next week.

“It doesn’t matter when the vote is held, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s days are numbered as head of the government,” said Labor Knesset member Haim Ramon, who submitted the bill.

A majority of legislators appeared ready to support the bill before Netanyahu managed to engineer the postponement.

Among those supporting early elections was former Foreign Minister David Levy. The last-minute efforts by Netanyahu to secure a postponement came after the premier failed to get Levy and his Gesher Party to rejoin the governing coalition.

Making a statement on Israel Radio, Levy described his discussions with the premier as a “sham.”

Sources close to Netanyahu quoted the premier as saying that giving the Finance Ministry portfolio to Levy, an advocate of social spending, would be “disastrous” for the Israeli economy.

Reacting to Labor’s attempt to call early elections, Netanyahu accused the opposition of adopting a divide-and-conquer mentality for the sole purpose of making a bid for power.

Hard-line members of Netanyahu’s coalition, opposed to the further West Bank redeployments the government agreed to under the Wye accords, had said they would vote with the opposition to dissolve the Knesset and force national elections.

These threats presented a serious challenge to Netanyahu’s coalition, which has a razor-thin majority of 61-59 in the Knesset.

As the debate on the early elections bill got under way in the house, Netanyahu held marathon consultations with representatives from the different Knesset factions, hoping to secure their support to defeat the bill.

But the prime minister angered coalition members when it was reported that he had made contradictory pledges to different factions.

According to legislators, Netanyahu promised Arab Knesset members that Israel would move ahead with the further redeployments following Clinton’s visit to the region, while telling members of the far-right Moledet Party that relations with the Palestinians were essentially frozen.

In an address Monday before the Knesset, the prime minister repeated his accusations that the Palestinian Authority had lied about implementing its part of the Wye agreement and that no additional territory would be handed over until there was Palestinian compliance with the accord.

In Washington, meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday that the Jewish state must fulfill its obligations under the Wye agreement.

Sharon, who was on a three-day visit to Washington, did not directly respond to the unusually blunt public comments made at a news conference by Albright, who aides said is incensed at the Israeli Cabinet’s decision last week to suspend further troop redeployments until the Palestinian Authority meets Israel’s conditions.

The Labor Party had vowed to provide Netanyahu with a safety net in the Knesset as long as the government continued to implement the Wye agreement. Last week’s Cabinet decision changed Labor’s stance and prompted the submission of the early elections bill.

The political wrangling came amid days of violent confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians.

On Monday alone, more than 60 Palestinians were reportedly hurt in separate clashes with Palestinian police and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.

The clashes are part of ongoing confrontations in the West Bank prompted by Palestinian demands that Israel free Palestinian political prisoners from its jails.

On Monday night, an Israeli was moderately wounded when shots were fired at his car as he was traveling in the West Bank. Israeli security forces believed the assailant or assailants fled to the autonomous area near Jenin.

Earlier in the day near Jerusalem, an Israeli opened fire after the car he was traveling in was pelted by stones near the neighborhood of Abu Dis. Two Palestinians were seriously wounded. Reports said one was later declared clinically dead, and that police were investigating whether shots fired by the Israeli caused the death.

In another incident, 12 Palestinians were wounded during a demonstration protesting the use of live fire by Palestinian police to disperse a protest near Nablus.

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