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Israel: Government Collapse Brings Elections Amid Frozen Peace Process

Prague, 22 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - The collapse of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition has set Israel off on what is likely to be a long election campaign in the midst of a frozen peace process.

Netanyahu, elected 32 months ago and due to serve until 2000, saw his right-wing coalition dissolve Monday, consumed in disagreements over the Wye River land-for-security accord he signed with the Palestinians in October.

The accords call for Israel to withdraw from a further 13 percent of the West Bank in return for Palestinian steps on security.

Analysts say the accord outraged ultra-Orthodox and nationalist parties in the ruling coalition. At the same time, Netanyahu's efforts to win the hardliners back by later freezing the accord cost him the support of his more moderate coalition members and cut off any help from Israel's leftist opposition.

Netanyahu will remain in office as a caretaker with full powers until a new election whose date has yet to be scheduled. The Israeli parliament voted yesterday 81 to 30 to hold early elections in a bill due for two more readings before going into law, possibly as early as next week. Once the law is passed, elections are to be held within three to six months. Most analysts predict they will take place by April.

The outgoing prime minister, who himself voted for the early elections after giving up attempts to mend his coalition, predicts he will return with a newly juggled alliance.

He said yesterday: "I am certain that the majority of the people want us to continue our policy of peace with security."

But some half dozen other Israeli leaders are ready to launch their own bids for his job, turning the elections into what analysts say could be a political free-for-all.

Shortly before yesterday's first reading of the early-election bill, opposition Labor Party leader Ehud Barak rejected a last-minute call by Netanyahu to explore chances for a national unity government.

Barak criticized the government's economic policies, which he said buy political support for Netanyahu by providing money for Jewish settlements. Barak called for increasing funding for education and jobs instead.

But former prime minister and Labor party leader Shimon Peres left the door open for cooperating with Netanyahu's Likud Party. He said that while he would not initiate any proposals, he would consider backing them.

One probable dark horse in the race, whom analysts say could eclipse both Likud and Labor, is Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former army chief. Shahak for months has led Netanyahu in opinion polls, though he has yet to publicly declare any policies because he is still an active officer. Shahak's aides told reporters this week he had decided to leave the military and form a centrist party. According to Israeli media, Shahak is a moderate who favors territorial concessions for peace.

Meanwhile, Dan Meridor, Netanyahu's former finance minister, said today he is quitting Likud and will run for prime minister.

Correspondents say others likely to declare their candidacy soon include hardliner Benjamin Begin, the son of the late prime minister Menachem Begin, and Limor Livnat, Netanyahu's communications minister. Any run by Livnat, who is a woman, would trouble ultra-Orthodox leaders who question a woman's fitness for leadership.

Netanyahu made a final move to rally hardliners back in his coalition on Sunday by freezing implementation of the Wye River accords. The Israeli cabinet suspended the accords just days after missing the agreement's deadline for the second wave of withdrawals on the West Bank.

The embattled prime minister also attempted to rally parliamentary support for a hard line on the peace process yesterday. But deputies rejected his appeal for cross-party support to put five conditions on the Palestinians for resuming the Wye deal.

The conditions included a demand that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat renounce his often repeated intention to declare an independent state in May.

If early elections are held in April, and Arafat sticks to his May deadline, the next months in Israel are sure to be tense. Senior Palestinian officials insisted today that the Wye River agreement must proceed despite the election.

Analysts say that whoever wins Israel's early elections, the next prime minister will be bedeviled by the same fragmentation in Israeli politics which brought down Netanyahu.

That fragmentation has increased with the growing power of small parties since Israel changed to a system of direct election of the prime minister in 1996. Under that change, Israelis who favor a prime minister can vote for him while also voting for a party other than his own, giving rise to a multitide of parties based on specific ideological or religious preferences.

With none of the major parties now set to win a majority, any new ruling alliance will have to try to include small factional parties. And that will once again raise the challenge of how to steer a consistent Israeli policy in the face of their often contradictory demands.