ISRAEL'S parliament voted yesterday to endorse the government's framework peace accord with the Palestinians, after a marathon and often stormy debate.
The Knesset voted 61-50 in favor of the agreement, capping three days of speeches broadcast live on Israeli radio and television, and encouraging Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to continue his negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). There were eight abstentions.
``I have received the confidence and the approval which the government needs to implement this plan,'' Mr. Rabin said.
Though the Labor-led government's majority was never in doubt, opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped until the last minute that the ultra-religious Shas party would join him to narrow the government's margin of victory. Shas, a coalition partner in the government, abstained from the vote, as did three Likud Knesset members who broke party discipline, giving Rabin a comfortable win.
The historic nature of the debate was rarely apparent from the atmosphere in the Knesset, where the chamber was almost empty for much of the time. More than two thirds of the 120 members spoke, but most appeared to be addressing their words to the record, and to posterity, rather than to an audience.
``Facts and processes are more important than debate,'' scoffed Yossi Sarid, Minister of the Environment, explaining the striking absence of drama from the proceedings. ``I don't think the speeches will influence reality.''
``There was no doubt that [the agreement] would be confirmed,'' said Yael Dayan, a Labor Knesset member. ``The significance was the signing of the agreement and the debate was not that important.''
Behind the scenes, some drama surrounded desperate efforts by both Likud and Labor leaders to cajole Shas's spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, into giving them his support. The rabbi received a constant flow of visitors at his home during the course of the debate, including Mr. Rabin and Mr. Netanyahu.
Likud had hoped that if Shas voted against the accord, the flimsiness of the government's 61-59 victory would have forced Rabin into calling early elections. Labor quietly warned Shas that a vote against the government would cost it state subsidies to its religious and educational institutions.
Rabbi Yosef eventually stayed on the fence, instructing the six Shas Knesset members ``not to vote against an agreement that holds the promise of peace,'' as Aryeh Deri, the party's most prominent figure put it, but not to vote in favor of the deal either.
That left Labor, its left-wing coalition partner `Meretz,' and two small Israeli Arab parties to defend the agreement against angry criticism from Likud and more extreme right-wing parties. It was, as Meretz Knesset member Naomi Chazan put it, ``a battle between hopes and fears.''
Likud leaders painted an unrelievedly gloomy picture - and often an apocalyptic one - of a future they seemed resigned to being unable to change.
Netanyahu, who warned that the government was leading Israel into mortal danger, ``spoke as if there was only one prophet, Jeremiah,'' in the words of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
Notably lacking from the opposition speeches was any suggestion of an alternative policy to the government's negotiations with the PLO on Palestinian autonomy, starting in Gaza and Jericho. Likud speakers condemned the plan in sweeping terms, rejecting it on principle, but rarely addressed the substance of the agreement. Their outright opposition, putting them in the same camp as the small extreme- right parties, appears to have distanced the Likud from its electorate. Many Likud voters, recent opinion polls have revealed, are prepared to give the deal a chance, despite their reservations.
``The Likud must not allow itself to stand together with [the extreme right]. We must be in the middle of the political map,'' argued Meir Shitreet, a Likud dissenters who abstained. ``The Likud has made a fatal error.''
Their defeat in the Knesset did not stop Likud leaders from continuing to demand immediate elections. The government's 61 votes, only one more than half the Knesset membership ``is proof that the government does not have any support,'' argued Moshe Katzav, leader of the Likud Knesset faction.
Prime Minister Rabin refuted this. ``We had a majority of eleven,'' he pointed out. ``That gives me full freedom to implement the agreement that we brought to the Knesset today for approval.''