At the height of efforts to forge a historic agreement with the Palestinians, Prime Minister Ehud Barak suffered a major blow to his government yesterday when coalition partners voted in favor of a preliminary call in the Knesset for early elections.
Although more legislation is needed before early elections can take place, the vote augurs badly for the Middle East peace process, now at an advanced and sensitive stage.
Mr. Barak is believed to be against holding elections within two months, as required, if the early election vote passes. He is concerned it would undermine the efforts to complete the peace negotiations, which have strong support from President Clinton. If early elections are held, that could set the negotiating process back until a new US administration is in place.
Analysts, however, say that the Israeli leader still retains viable options for pushing negotiations forward, whether this means moving towards elections or reconstituting the coalition.
"I don't think he's in a bad position," says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for the biweekly Jerusalem Report. "It doesn't look good that his government has been in power for only 11 months and a bill to dissolve the Knesset has already been passed. But he probably believes he can rebuild and recover any ground that has been lost."
The main motion to dissolve the House, submitted by a right-wing opposition faction, passed by a vote of 61 to 48. The crisis erupted after Barak refused to give his largest coalition partner, Shas, millions of additional dollars for its bankrupt, scandal-ridden Orthodox school system.
Joseph Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies says, "There is a strong sense that this government will not last four, three, or even two years and that Barak would agree to hold elections after having an agreement with the Palestinians under his belt."
According to one scenario, Barak would reach an agreement with the Palestinians based on a narrow coalition and then call elections to give it wider legitimacy.
Barak will, in Mr. Susser's view, be in a strong position if the border with Lebanon remains quiet in the months ahead. Israel withdrew its troops last month to end a costly 22-year occupation, a decisive move that was greeted with relief by many Israelis. He could also build on tentative signs of an economic upturn which have been emerging in recent weeks.
The crisis comes a day after US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority in a bid to advance the negotiations on thorny final-status issues, including borders, settlements, and the future of Jerusalem.
As is often the case in Israeli politics, yesterday's vote showed that what are at one level purely domestic squabbles over funding and influence also have direct implications for the marketing of peace moves.
Shas's spiritual leader, Ovadia Yosef, is a dovish rabbi who has ruled that Israel can cede territory to Arab peace partners if doing so saves Jewish lives. Barak has viewed him as a natural partner in selling to the Israeli public what he has described as "painful" territorial concessions. In return, Shas has expected - and received - considerable allocations for its schools.
Barak now has several options. He can try to appease Shas by resuming negotiations over funding for the school system, or he can fire all the ministers who did not support him and try to put together a new coalition ahead of the next vote. One candidate is the secular-rights party Shinui, which has said it is ready to join the government, provided the religious factions are expelled. Barak, buoyed by his Lebanon success, stood up firmly for the first time last week against Shas demands.
During a stopover in Cairo, Secretary of State Albright responded to the crisis by saying that Mr. Clinton had "a passion for peace" and would use the few months he has remaining in the White House to promote Middle East accords. "There is no higher foreign-policy priority for Mr. Clinton," she told a news conference after talks with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak. "This is a rare opportunity to reach an accord, and we can't let it slip away. President Clinton and I are prepared ... to roll up our sleeves and do everything to facilitate the process."
Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara said his talks with Albright had cleared the air for new efforts to revive peace talks with Israel: "It was positive and constructive and removed much of the misunderstanding that occurred in the past few months, particularly that concerning the Geneva summit between President Hafez al-Assad and President Bill Clinton."
In an encouraging sign, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to resume negotiations in Washington beginning June 12 after a two-week lapse. But in a sign of the difficulties facing the negotiators, each side accused the other of blocking progress on key issues, such as the status of Jerusalem, and Israel said there was no certainty that the Washington talks would lead to a peace accord.
*Material from wire services was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society