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Israel Preparing for Elections After Premier Loses Knesset Vote

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The U.S.-brokered Wye agreement has proved to be the final straw for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fragmented coalition.

With coalition hard-liners attacking the accord’s land-for-security arrangements, and the opposition attacking the premier’s recent decision to freeze implementation of the agreement, the outcome of a Knesset session Monday appeared to be a foregone conclusion.

During that session, the 120-member Knesset overwhelmingly approved a bill to hold new elections by a vote of 81-30, with four abstentions.

The vote came after the Labor Party rejected an 11th-hour call from Netanyahu to form a national unity government.

The bill’s passage was guaranteed earlier in the day, when Netanyahu’s Likud Party, recognizing that it could not secure a majority for the prime minister’s freezing of the peace process, said it would back the call for early elections.

With its passage, the bill was sent back to the Knesset’s Legislative Committee prior to two more votes, which could happen as early as next week.

But it was widely believed that the coalition and opposition would soon agree upon a date for elections prior to the completion of the legislative process.

Netanyahu is said to want elections in May, while Labor favors March.

At the opening of Monday’s session, legislators passed the first reading of a bill to cancel the law for the direct election of the prime minister. Netanyahu is the only Israeli prime minister to be elected in this manner.

Prior to the vote, legislators agreed that if the bill becomes law after two subsequent votes, it would not apply to the upcoming election.

Monday’s vote on holding new elections followed a stormy session in which Netanyahu asked the Knesset to back his stance on the Wye agreement, which calls on the Palestinian Authority to fulfill five conditions before Israel resumes implementation of the accord, which was signed in October.

By a vote of 56-48, the Knesset rejected that stance.

Earlier in the session. Netanyahu appealed for a 72-hour break to explore the possibility of forming a national unity government.

He attributed his about-face, after weeks of publicly ruling out the possibility of such a government, to an impassioned plea made during the session by the leader of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, Aryeh Deri.

Deri’s speech “did something to me. It came from the heart,” the premier said. “It’s very possible that we can’t [succeed], but maybe we should make an effort.

“If we succeed, the people of Israel will thank us. If not, we will know that we tried. I am extending my hand for national unity.”

Opposition leader Ehud Barak, whom Netanyahu called on to respond immediately, dismissed the proposal, saying it was “too late.”

Recounting the divisions that have plagued Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and religious parties, Barak said he doubted real unity could be achieved.

He also questioned the authenticity of the proposal.

“We believe that only peace, clear red lines and a determined fight against terrorism will bring real peace. I am not convinced that this government, as a collective which determines the fate of Israel, is going to pursue this,” Barak said.

“As painful as it is, I felt it is too late. Everyone must judge for themselves, but I cannot say that this is a serious proposal.”

During the often contentious debate, Netanyahu accused the left wing of reneging on its promise to provide him with a safety net on matters relating to the peace process.

“You said you would provide a safety net. We know what kind of safety net that is. One with rips in it.”

Barak retorted that the government was more interested in its own survival than in upholding the 2-month-old Wye agreement.

“Time after time, we saved this government from its own coalition in order to continue the process,” Barak said, adding that the opposition had come to believe that the “government is not interested in upholding the agreement but only in its political survival.”

The former army chief then pointedly asked the premier, “Why don’t members of your own government support you?”

As the coalition and opposition work in the coming days to agree on a date for new elections, their decision will be significant for one expected prime ministerial candidate — former army chief Amnon Shahak.

Shahak is currently on leave from the army. By law, he must wait out a 100-day grace period before entering politics.

Shahak rejected a call from Barak to join the Labor Party, saying he intends to run for prime minister. He is expected to head a new, centrist party being formed for the elections.

During a meeting with Shahak, Barak appealed to him to change his plans, saying his candidacy would only split the left-wing vote in a race against Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, several prominent figures in the Likud Party were rumored to be thinking of breaking away to join other parties or form new ones — among them Communications Minister Limor Livnat and former Cabinet ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin.

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