- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2000

JERUSALEM Prime Minister Ehud Barak survived an attempt to bring down his government and bought himself time to push the peace process yesterday, but he lost another battle when his party's candidate for president was defeated in an upset vote.

In an embarrassing day for Mr. Barak in parliament, legislators first voted 63-57 to elect Moshe Katsav, an Iranian-born legislator from the opposition Likud Party, as Israel's eighth president. Mr. Katsav bested Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace laureate and former prime minister.

Later in the day, Mr. Barak survived a no-confidence vote, beating back a challenge by those opposed to his willingness to concede land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. The 120-member Knesset voted 50-50, with eight abstentions and 12 legislators not present 11 votes short of the outright majority needed to oust the government.

Despite the blows to his prestige, there was a bright side for Mr. Barak. The vote came two days before the end of the Knesset's summer session, and legislators won't reconvene until late October. That gives Mr. Barak a three-month respite from parliamentary challenges to try to conclude a deal with the Palestinians.

The two sides have set a deadline of Sept. 13 for a final peace agreement resolving thorny issues including control of Jerusalem, the borders of a Palestinian state and the fate of Palestinian refugees who want to return to their former homes in what is now Israel.

Mr. Barak told the legislators that while he could not command a majority in parliament for a peace accord now, he was confident the mood would shift once a deal is presented to the Israeli people.

In a voice husky with emotion, Mr. Barak accused the opposition and defectors from his coalition of following their own narrow interests, rather than the public good.

"I turn to each and every one of you and say, 'Rise above small-minded politics in order to bring peace to Israel,' " Mr. Barak told legislators before the no-confidence vote.

Hanan Ashrawi, a legislator in the Palestinian parliament, said the three-month break gives Mr. Barak a chance to move more decisively in the peace negotiations.

"They can rescue peace from the jaws of disaster should they wish to use this time wisely," she told Associated Press Television News.

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Peres, 76 a former prime minister who led his reluctant nation to peace talks with the Palestinians in 1993 looked stunned when the result of the presidential vote was announced. He had been considered a shoo-in.

Trying to maintain his composure, the dapper, silver-haired Mr. Peres, who has lost four of five elections for prime minister, would only say he wished Mr. Katsav well. The humiliating defeat appeared to spell the end to an often turbulent political career that has spanned half a century, though Mr. Peres still holds a Knesset seat and has said he will campaign for peace no matter what his position.

Israel's presidency is largely ceremonial, but the incumbent Ezer Weizman, who was forced to resign because of fraud accusations has used the prestige of the post in support of Mideast peace efforts.

Mr. Peres had been expected to turn the presidency into a platform for assisting the peace negotiators. In contrast, Mr. Katsav, as a member of Likud, opposes far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians.

The jubilant Mr. Katsav, who was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel at age 6, said he hopes to help heal Israel's many divisions between Sephardi Jews of Middle Eastern descent and Ashkenazi Jews of European descent, between secular and religious, between rich and poor, between new immigrants and longtime residents.

In Mr. Katsav's predominantly Sephardi hometown of Kiryat Malachi, yesterday's vote was celebrated as a victory over Israel's Ashkenazi-dominated elite. However, Mr. Peres apparently had been the preferred choice of a majority of Israelis, according to informal opinion surveys.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which draws its support from religiously observant Sephardi Jews, voted as a bloc for Mr. Katsav despite expectations that some of the faction's 17 lawmakers would back Mr. Peres.

Shas officials said one of the party's spiritual leaders, Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, who is believed to be about 100 years old, had a vision Sunday that Mr. Katsav was favored by the heavens. As a result, Kadouri aides mounted a phone campaign, urging legislators of Shas and other factions to back Mr. Katsav.

The Shas vote for Mr. Katsav, coupled with its support for the Likud's no-confidence motion over the peace talks, was seen as a strong signal that the party will not return to Mr. Barak's coalition in the near future. Shas' support is seen as crucial for Mr. Barak to win a required 61-vote majority in parliament for an eventual peace treaty.

Shas, along with two hawkish factions, left Mr. Barak's government before the summit at Camp David. The three parties said they were concerned Mr. Barak would make too many concessions to the Palestinians, especially over the future of Jerusalem.

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