- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2000

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ehud Barak, his government beset by failed peace talks with the Palestinians and two months of violence, agreed in parliament yesterday to hold elections within months.

"You want elections? I am ready for elections, general elections for the prime minister and the parliament," Mr. Barak told lawmakers before they voted on a bill to advance the date of general elections, originally scheduled for 2003.

The announcement immediately plunged Israel into election fever, prompting speculation over who Mr. Barak would face in the vote and whether members of his own Labor party would mount a challenge to his leadership.

Mr. Barak, whose approval rating has collapsed in recent weeks, said a date for the poll would be set in the coming days and elections probably will be held by the summer.

The Israeli leader, who has been in office for just 18 months, said he would continue pursuing a peace accord with the Palestinians even as he presides over a lame-duck administration.

The 120-member Knesset voted separately on five bills calling for early elections. Four of the bills were approved by more than 70 members of the house. Only three legislators were opposed, and the rest abstained.

Mr. Barak, 58, exerted great political effort in recent days to scuttle the bill but changed direction when it became clear that a substantial majority in parliament would support early elections.

Polls show Mr. Barak lagging far behind two possible conservative candidates opposition leader Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But surveys also show most Israelis want their government to strike a deal with the Palestinians.

Mr. Barak hopes to reach an agreement by polling day, thereby boosting his chances of getting re-elected.

"As long as the government is in control and hasn't completed its term, it has the authority and even the obligation to do the right things for the people," Mr. Barak told Israeli television when asked if he had the right to continue pursuing peace with the Palestinians.

His finance minister was more direct.

"I hope that we'll go to the election with an agreement with the Palestinians. This way we can win," Avraham Shochat told reporters.

Mr. Barak was elected in May 1999 for a four-year term but lost his majority in parliament in July upon deciding to attend the Camp David peace summit, where Israelis and Palestinians tried to solve their remaining disputes and forge a final peace agreement.

The summit ended without a deal and peacemaking efforts in the next few months were ineffectual. The current wave of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip began Sept. 28 and has left more than 280 people dead, most of them Palestinians.

Two roadside bombs exploded yesterday near Israeli army patrols in the Gaza Strip. After one of the blasts, near Rafah, Israeli soldiers opened fire, injuring 15 Palestinians in a refugee camp, hospital sources said.

A 17-year-old Palestinian died of wounds in clashes with Israeli troops in Gaza and a 14-year-old Palestinian boy died of wounds sustained in clashes on Nov. 22, sources at Gaza's Shifa hospital said.

Mr. Barak defended his government's record in his address to parliament and said he preferred forming a broad government with the conservative Likud party under Mr. Sharon.

"I repeat elections at this time are not necessary. The nation wants and the situation demands a national emergency government," he said.

Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharon have met several times in recent weeks to discuss a right-left coalition but the efforts failed over Mr. Sharon's demand for veto power over any peace initiative with the Palestinians.

Mr. Sharon's Likud party is expected to hold primaries in the coming months to determine its candidate for prime minister.

"I will run for head of Likud, and I believe I will be the Likud candidate who will compete against Mr. Barak in the election," Mr. Sharon rushed to tell reporters late yesterday.

But Mr. Netanyahu, who has been out of politics since his stinging defeat by Mr. Barak last year, has a better chance of beating Mr. Barak, according to polls. One survey published last week showed Mr. Netanyahu getting 44 percent of the vote compared with 25 percent for Mr. Barak.

Mr. Netanyahu has refused to discuss his political future, though members of Likud say he is carefully plotting his comeback.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks foundered during Mr. Netanyahu's term in office from 1996 to 1999.

Police later investigated him for bribery and corruption and recommended he be charged, but the attorney general ruled recently that there was insufficient evidence to bring Mr. Netanyahu to trial.

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