- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2000

JERUSALEM Benjamin Netanyahu today pulled out of the race to lead Israel, an aide said, hours after Israeli lawmakers rejected a bill that would have scheduled parliamentary elections in conjunction with already planned balloting for prime minister.

Mr. Netanyahu's withdrawal from the race leaves former Gen. Ariel Sharon as the main challenger to Ehud Barak in an election that will set the course of Middle East peacemaking.

Aviv Bushinsky, a close aide to Mr. Netanyahu, a former Likud bloc prime minister, told Reuters: "He says he is withdrawing from the contest for both the Likud and the prime minister." Mr. Sharon, the Likud chairman, "is the only candidate," he said.

Mr. Netanyahu reiterated last night that he would not run without parliamentary elections. His withdrawal followed lawmakers' 68-48 vote against dissolving the Knesset.

Mr. Barak resigned earlier this month seeking a renewed mandate for his peace policies.

The news came early this morning, after a stormy and often confusing day in parliament yesterday, which largely overshadowed the start of talks in Washington today. The talks, though sure to be plagued by difficulties, generated hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord after 11 weeks of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"We are going to make the most thorough check ever done in order to see if it is possible to arrive at an agreement," said Gilead Sher, Mr. Barak's top aide and a negotiator with the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, in New York, the Palestinian demand for a U.N. observer force in the West Bank and Gaza was defeated in the Security Council yesterday when the United States, Russia and other key countries abstained, arguing it could jeopardize the negotiations.

Only eight council members supported the resolution Bangladesh, China, Jamaica, Malaysia, Mali, Namibia, Tunisia and Ukraine. Seven council members abstained Argentina, Britain, Canada, France, Netherlands, Russia and the United States.

For more than a month, Palestinian supporters on the council have been trying to mobilize support for 2,000 unarmed U.N. observers to be sent to the Middle East to help stop the recent violence and protect Palestinian civilians.

But Israel remains opposed, insisting that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians are the only way to achieve peace.

Israel's political drama began with a midday meeting of rabbis in Jerusalem, spiritual leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, whose support Mr. Netanyahu had been seeking for a bill to dissolve parliament.

Mr. Netanyahu, former leader of the Likud faction, wanted elections to be held for both prime minister and parliament hoping to capitalize on an Israeli mood swing to the right that would give his and other right-wing parties a greater proportion of the seats in parliament.

Polls showed Mr. Netanyahu coasting to an easy victory over Mr. Barak. He led Israel through a failed peace summit in July and a wave of Israeli-Palestinian fighting that began in late September, so far killing 330 persons, most of them Palestinians.

But the polls also showed Shas losing seats to Mr. Netanyahu's Likud bloc.

When Shas' spiritual leaders announced the party would oppose the bill to dissolve parliament, Mr. Netanyahu quickly called a news conference to reiterate that he would not run under unfavorable conditions.

"I will only run if there is also an election for parliament. I will not run if parliament decides not to dissolve itself," Mr. Netanyahu told reporters.

Mr. Netanyahu quit politics after losing badly to Mr. Barak in elections last year and is not a member of parliament. That detail under Israel's complicated ballot laws bars him from competing in an election unless it was for both prime minister and parliament.

To remedy the situation, Shas had sponsored a bill that would remove the restriction, allowing Mr. Netanyahu to run without forcing a parallel election for parliament. But Mr. Netanyahu repudiated the legislation, calling it unconstitutional.

Still, Shas persisted, hoping Mr. Netanyahu would come around if the bill won approval. In late-night commotion, both proposals the bill to dissolve parliament and the bill to allow Mr. Netanyahu to run came to the plenum for a final vote.

Lawmakers voted down the first one and passed the second.

"I can't remember this kind of chaos in all my years in parliament," said Shewach Weiss, a former parliament speaker who served as a lawmaker for 18 years.

The results meant that technically Mr. Netanyahu could still run, though doing so would constitute an embarrassing about-face.

His Likud bloc was scheduled to hold primaries today.

Peace talks broke down months ago over the division of Jerusalem, though the two sides were also at odds on the fate of Palestinian refugees, the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, and the precise borders of a Palestinian state. The weeks of violence have deepened the mistrust.

Negotiators, led by Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, will begin today by meeting separately with American mediators at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, but might hold face-to-face talks in the coming days.

"This is an important first step," said State Department spokesman Philip Reeker.

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