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Barak’s coalition collapses

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JERUSALEM, July 9 (JTA) — On the eve of an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit this week in the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s government was threatened with collapse by an exodus of coalition members.

Interior Minister Natan Sharansky of the Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party was the first to submit his resignation Sunday. He cited Barak’s failure to set “red lines” — the limits to what he is willing to negotiate away — before going to the summit.

Several hours later, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, the third-largest party in the 120-member Knesset, announced it was pulling out of Barak’s coalition as well. The National Religious Party followed suit shortly after.

By law, the resignations require two days to take effect. If they do, Barak’s governing coalition will be left with 42 seats in the Knesset.

Despite the apparent disintegration of his coalition, Barak remained set in his plans to depart Monday for the Camp David meeting with President Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

In an address to the nation broadcast on television and radio Sunday, Barak said he had gotten his mandate from the public and it was his responsibility to seek out every possible avenue of peace.

“No one will teach me what security is,” the former army chief of staff said. “I must rise above all the political arguments and all the party considerations, and seek out all the possibilities on the way to a peace agreement that will end the conflict of blood between us and our neighbors.”

Barak said he could not reveal Israel’s final stance because it could be taken by the Palestinians as Israel’s opening position.

At the same time, he insisted that “no concessions have been made yet.”

The coalition collapse that snowballed Sunday had been building for weeks. It accelerated when Clinton announced the summit last week.

Barak was elected more than a year ago on a platform that included a plan to advance the peace process.

While he sought out a broad-based government to advance this initiative, hawkish members of the government have been unhappy over his policies and anxious about the concessions he is reportedly willing to make.

A spate of media reports on Barak’s willingness to cede up to 80 percent of the West Bank raised fears among some coalition partners, who have also felt left out of the decision-making process.

“The process is very important to us, and we expect to be genuine partners on the way,” Shas leader Eli Yishai said at a news conference where he announced his party’s decision to pull out.

Coinciding with Barak’s departure for the United States on Monday, the Knesset was scheduled to debate an opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion.

However, observers speculated that the opposition would fail to muster the 61 votes needed to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections.

In another blow to Barak, Foreign Minister David Levy turned down the premier’s invitation to accompany him to the United States. Levy is also said to be unhappy with Barak’s handling of the peace process.

Israel and the Palestinians face a self-imposed Sept. 13 target date for concluding a final accord.

On the agenda are the thorniest issues facing them since the start of the Oslo peace process — Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, Jewish settlements and final borders.

This week’s Camp David summit has been viewed as a last-ditch attempt to make headway toward the final peace accord.

Israeli military and intelligence officials have repeatedly warned of a possible outbreak of violence if there is no progress.

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