Middle East Crisis Headlines – 12/19/2000
Ehud Barak’s chances of remaining Israel’s prime minister increased dramatically in the middle of last night when the Knesset voted against holding general elections at this time. The vote was 69 against dissolving the Knesset, and 49 for, with 4 abstentions. The religious Shas party, with 17 votes, tipped the balance when party leaders decided yesterday to oppose an early general vote. The late night result means that former Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu will apparently not be running after all in a narrow election for the position of prime minister, scheduled for February 6. The Knesset’s refusal to disband itself and go to the polls showed that Barak’s surprise resignation on December 9, which produced the snap election, was politically brilliant after all, even if ethically questionable. He will now face Ariel Sharon in the race for the top post, an opponent that he has a good chance of defeating according to all opinion polls.
Many Likud leaders are in a tizzy today following the Knesset vote. They are urging Netanyahu to reconsider his pledge that he would not run unless a general election were held. The former premier has pointed out that if he won an exclusive vote for premier, he would have an extremely difficult time forming a viable coalition government given the makeup of the current Knesset, which is dominated by left-wing parties and the neutral Shas party. Analysts say that Sharon, leading Barak in the polls by a slim margin, would also find it impossible to form anything but a broad unity government since his Likud party holds only 19 Knesset seats out of 120. Netanyahu warned before late night’s Knesset vote that if Israel’s legislators refuse to dissolve the parliament at this time, new general elections will become necessary anyway in the coming months since both Labor and Likud leaders will find it nearly impossible to form stable coalitions.
Israeli newspapers today are full of speculation that last night’s Knesset vote was the result of a secret deal made between Barak, Sharon and the Shas party to keep Netanyahu’s hat out of the ring. Analysts note that Barak and Sharon held a private meeting just days before the PM’s surprise resignation announcement. They say the two probably agreed to form a unity government no matter which one wins the narrow election, featuring Shas as a major partner in either case. Most analysts note that such as government could have been formed without the trauma of an election campaign if only Barak’s left-wing allies and Netanyahu’s core Likud supporters would have allowed it.
Ehud Barak is facing another potential political headache this week–the possible candidacy of either Shimon Peres or Meretz leader Yossi Sarid to take over his job. The two left-wing politicians are jointly considering whether one of them should run for premier “in order to offer the nation a true peace candidate,” as one of Sarid’s boosters put it. Political analysts say a three way race would probably hand the election to Sharon by default. Many left-wing politicians are warning Peres against entering the race, but the former prime minister is said to have growing feelings of loathing for Barak and is convinced he has the best chance of securing a viable peace accord with Yasser Arafat. Peres and Sarid must decide whether one of them should stand by Thursday night, when all candidates for the highest office in the land must formally submit their candidacy papers to election officials. Several Arab Knesset members are also talking about fielding an Arab candidate for prime minister.
With Palestinians holding a general strike today, fresh clashes are reported in several areas. Israeli radio said six Palestinians have been wounded by army fire near Hebron. Shots were directed overnight at Jewish neighborhoods in the divided town. Palestinian gunmen also fired at the Jewish community of Psagot north of Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers shot last night at four Palestinians trying to infiltrate from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Exchanges of fire were also reported along the Gaza border with Egypt. A bomb exploded this morning near an IDF army patrol in the Gaza Strip, but no casualties were reported. Roadside bombs were also harmlessly detonated in several other locations.
The new clashes come as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators prepare to meet separately today with US officials at an air force base near Washington. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Monday that the Palestinians will demand a complete Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, including all of east Jerusalem. Speaking on Palestinian radio, he said, “There must be complete and undivided Palestinian sovereignty over holy Al-Quds (Jerusalem), including the Old City, the holy sites, and our blessed Al-Aksa mosque.” Most analysts say it highly unlikely that Barak would agree to fulfill such a demand in the face of a looming election, and even more so in the midst of a continuing security crisis that has featured regular armed Palestinian attacks on the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.