Barak down, but peace plan not yet out

JERUSALEM, Aug. 2 (JTA) — Prime Minister Ehud Barak exuded his usual confidence this week, but even members of his own party are starting to wonder why.

In rapid succession this week, the premier saw his nominee for the nation’s presidency lose out to a relative unknown, had his foreign minister resign in a public dispute over Barak’s handling of the Camp David summit, and the Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill to dissolve itself and hold early elections.

Barak could draw some solace that the Knesset was unable to muster the 61 votes to pass a no-confidence motion against him earlier this week.

But his opponents — and even some members of his coalition — are saying it is only a matter of time until Barak’s government falls.

The political clock began ticking for Barak on Wednesday, with the start of a Knesset summer recess granting the beleaguered premier three months to try to get his governing coalition in order and make headway in peace talks with the Palestinians.

It got off to a discouraging start that same day, when David Levy resigned as foreign minister — a move that left Barak with only 13 ministers in his Cabinet. Two months ago, there were 23.

Just hours after Levy’s resignation, the Knesset backed the bill dissolving itself. Given the recess, no further moves on the bill are expected until October or, more likely, November. It must still pass three more votes before it becomes law and new elections are called.

Barak dismissed the vote, calling it “part of a movie we have been in.”

“I do not yet see the Knesset really dispersing itself and going to elections,” he said. “In a few weeks, the dust will settle.”

Barak plans to spend that time rebuilding his coalition, which began splintering on the eve of the Camp David summit, when three coalition members — Shas, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah and the National Religious Party — bolted from his government.

But members of his government believe that Barak’s options are limited. Even Haim Ramon, who is among the ministers closest to Barak, was quoted this week as saying that the premier is running out of combinations for a workable government.

Earlier in the week, the Knesset handed Barak a defeat that left many commentators believing it was a harbinger of more dire things to come for the premier.

On Monday, legislators elected Likud Party lawmaker Moshe Katsav president in a vote that was believed to be as much a stinging rebuke to Barak as it was to Katsav’s opponent, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Peres did not link the fate handed him during the secret Knesset ballot to the standing of Barak and his government among Israel’s legislators.

Nor did he deduce that his own defeat means that Barak would not triumph in a national referendum on a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Peres’ old friend and political foe, Ariel Sharon, however, did link the defeat to the peace process.

Sharon, leader of the opposition Likud Party, claimed Tuesday that the majority that put Katsav into the president’s residence is, in effect, the same majority in the Knesset that opposes Barak’s peace moves.

This majority includes the rightist bloc and the religious bloc. It is the coalition that former Prime Minister Menachem Begin first put together in 1977, when he brought his Likud Party to power for the first time.

His successor, Yitzhak Shamir, inherited the coalition and was able to preserve it for much of the following decade.

Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin overturned the coalition, briefly but crucially, after the election of 1992, when he wooed the fervently Orthodox Shas Party into his Labor-Meretz government and went on to sign the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.

The rightist-religious coalition came together again four years later, to support Benjamin Netanyahu for the premiership.

Although Barak succeeded once again in creating Rabin’s coalition when he won power last year, he has not succeeded in holding it together.

Peres’s personal story — four decades of historic triumphs at home and abroad interspersed with frustrating electoral defeats — is the stuff of great literature.

But the fortunes of Barak’s peace initiative, which still hangs in the balance despite the collapse of the Camp David summit, is the stuff of Israel’s future.

Sharon says the Israeli people will follow their legislators and shore up the “national camp.” He also says the electorate will spurn the concessions Barak made at Camp David, particularly his readiness to cede the strategic Jordan Valley and to transfer parts of Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty.

The ever-confident Barak — and with him the defeated but not silenced Peres — believe there is still room to hope that the Palestinians will accept U.S. bridging proposals on Jerusalem, and that if they do the people of Israel will do so as well.

Barak has the opinion polls to back him up. Over the weekend, a Gallup poll indicated that 66 percent of Israelis favor further negotiations with the Palestinians.

On the political right, people point to the huge disparity between the weekend opinion polls regarding the presidency and what in fact transpired in the Knesset on Monday. The polls showed Peres favored by three times as many Israelis as Katsav. Yet Katsav won.

Perhaps, they say, the polls are also way off when it comes to the negotiations with the Palestinians.

Pollsters and left-of-center pundits, though, maintain that the “inaccuracy” of the polls in terms of who would win the presidential contest proves that the Knesset is way to the right of the public.

Hence its insistence on voting for Katsav even though Peres was the more popular candidate. And hence its determination, if it can, to bring Barak down before he can take a peace accord with Arafat to the people.

On Monday afternoon, in the aftermath of the dramatic presidential vote, Sharon’s vaunted “national camp majority” failed to gel in a no-confidence motion against Barak. Only 50 members supported the motion, which needed 61 of the Knesset’s 120 members to bring the premier and his government down.

But Sharon vowed that the summer recess would give the beleaguered Barak no peace.

“Our children and grandchildren can go on vacation,” the Likud leader said. “But there’ll be no holiday for us. We’ll be here, day in and day out, attacking the prime minister.”

Political observers say the crunch will come when the Knesset returns from its summer break, just after the High Holidays.

If Barak has gotten an accord with the Palestinians by then, there will be elections.

If he has not, they say, there will still be elections.

The only question is when they will be held. Some politicians suggest the spring of 2001. Others say Barak will be unable to govern until then, that he will be unable to push through the state budget at year’s end.

Either way, the present government’s days seem numbered.

Pundits may long debate whether Peres’ defeat was related to this situation, but all are agreed that the same Knesset that denied him the presidency is fast approaching the end of its term.

NEXT STORY