- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2000

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak suffered a double blow yesterday with the resignation of his foreign minister and a decision by parliament to call early elections.

Foreign Minister David Levy accused Mr. Barak of making too many concessions to the Palestinians at last month's Camp David peace summit while getting nothing in return. The summit ended without a deal.

In the messy arithmetic of Israeli politics, Mr. Barak has discovered an axiom: The closer he gets to a peace deal with the Palestinians, the weaker his grip on power becomes.

Now down to 11 ministers in a Cabinet that once boasted 23, Mr. Barak might soon be forced to concede what analysts have been predicting for weeks that Israelis will go to the polls by early next year.

"It looks bad. Maybe this isn't the end, but it will be hard for Barak to piece things together," political scientist Gerald Steinberg said.

Mr. Levy, 62, is widely regarded here as a political chameleon. He called a news conference to announce his resignation, citing Mr. Barak's "commitment, from which there is no return, to divide Jerusalem."

Less than an hour later, Mr. Levy raised his hand on a bill in parliament to dissolve the 120-member Knesset and hold early elections, originally set for 2003.

The bill passed in the preliminary reading by a vote of 61 to 51, with six abstentions. While it may take months for the legislation to get through committee and pass the required three additional readings, the vote highlighted Mr. Barak's acute political weakness just 14 months after being elected by an unprecedented majority.

Mr. Barak, leader of the left-leaning Labor Party, formed a broad coalition in July 1999 that included some opponents of the land-for-peace formula on which talks with the Palestinians have been predicated.

Three parties left his coalition as Mr. Barak headed to Camp David last month, slashing his support in parliament by more than a third.

At the 15-day summit, Mr. Barak offered Palestinians, in addition to statehood, sovereignty over parts of Jerusalem. It was a compromise no previous Israeli leader had proposed and one that violated Mr. Barak's own pledge to voters not to divide the city.

In exchange, Israel would have been allowed to annex parts of the West Bank, including settlements around Jerusalem, and would have secured an end to the festering 52-year-old conflict.

Palestinians rejected it.

Mr. Barak left the talks having conceded nothing, as the two sides fell short of an agreement, but word of the far-reaching offer exacerbated his political weakness. On Sunday, Mr. Barak's candidate for the ceremonial post of state president, Shimon Peres, suffered a humiliating defeat in a parliamentary vote.

Mr. Barak insists he still enjoys wide popular backing. And while no conclusive polls have been published since his return, studies conducted a month ago showed a majority supported his decision to attend the Camp David summit.

"I am confident that despite the opposition's successes [in parliamentary votes] the people are pining for something else," Mr. Barak said yesterday.

While his bold moves on the peace front have undermined him politically, clinching a deal also might provide Mr. Barak his best chance to stay on top.

By doing so, he would have a concrete achievement to tout in any early election, effectively transforming the vote into a referendum on Middle East peace.

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