News Analysis: Barak Tries to Stay Politically Alive Just Long Enough to Sign Peace Deal

Ehud Barak and his shrunken center-left government are living on borrowed time – and the rightist-religious opposition this week moved to call in the loan.

But the Israeli prime minister insists that it’s not time to pay up yet, and he proposes to keep putting off the collectors as long as there is still hope of clinching a peace deal with the Palestinians.

On Tuesday, Barak assessed that hope at 50-50 following a meeting in Cairo between President Clinton, on his way back home from African, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The next test will come Sept. 6, when Clinton, Barak and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, will all be in New York for the U.N. Millennium Summit.

U.S. diplomats are working to produce sufficient momentum in the negotiations to enable the Mideast players to use that New York gathering as a jumping-off point for direct top-level dialogue.

The key issue of dispute is still Jerusalem.

The latest opposition effort to thwart Barak’s efforts to clinch a peace deal involves a bill, signed by 62 of the 120 Knesset members, that would forbid a prime minister from negotiating over the country’s borders if he has lost the support of the majority of the legislature.

The initiative was launched by Moledet Knesset member Benny Elon. Since there can be no private member’s legislation during the recess, Elon introduced the bill on Monday in the form of a motion for the agenda.

While there is no possibility of the initiative becoming law at this time, the opposition has strongly articulated its point: The government does not enjoy the confidence of a majority of the legislators in the peace negotiations; and most members do not want Barak to sign an accord with Arafat and then submit it to the nation, either in a referendum or as the central issue in an early election.

Elon and other rightists, among them the soft-spoken former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, say it is unprecedented in parliamentary democracies for a government to conduct international negotiations on the nation’s vital interests while lacking the support of the legislature.

But those same Knesset members who oppose the premier’s policy are not prepared to do the one thing that they are constitutionally capable of doing, even during the recess: pass a vote of no confidence against him.

No-confidence motions voted on just before the summer recess failed to reach the requisite 61 votes.

If such a vote were passed by 61 or more, the government falls automatically and new elections are held after 90 days.

According to Hebrew University constitutional law expert Claude Klein, Israeli law provides one clear-cut method of removing a government in mid-term – and that method is a vote of no confidence passed by 61 or more members of Knesset. Elon’s motion, even if he could turn it into law, would not spell the end of Barak’s regime, Klein said.

Members of Barak’s government and the Labor Party clutched desperately to the professor’s academic ruling this week in their efforts to beat back the opposition’s attacks.

Barak’s supporters did so, though, with a certain ambivalence. They are also uncomfortable with a government too weak to push through any of its own measures in the Knesset.

Indeed, Barak has not appointed new ministers in place of the members of Shas, the National Religious Party and Yisrael Ba’Aliyah who resigned earlier in the summer because he cannot be sure of winning Knesset approval for such appointments.

Instead, he has named Labor Party men as “acting ministers” in the various vacant departments, a move that does not need Knesset authorization.

Barak maintains that even with his government’s sagging parliamentary fortunes, he still has a mandate from the people based on last year’s elections.

But apart from Barak and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who is weighing a political comeback if the state prosecution decides not to bring charges against him in a bribery investigation – few Israeli politicians still support the two-vote system, one for prime minister and one for party, that brought Barak to power.

Many opposed the law, which was introduced before the 1996 elections that brought Netanyahu to power, from the outset. They have been joined by an increasing number of Knesset members and academics who have been convinced by the practical experience of recent years that the system is flawed.

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