- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 14, 2000

Former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday won an initial nod from parliament to run for prime minister in February elections that ambassador to Washington David Ivry said are a result of Yasser Arafat's policy of violence.

Mr. Ivry told editors and reporters at The Washington Times yesterday that even if conservatives George W. Bush and Mr. Netanyahu replace liberal leaders in Washington and Jerusalem next year, the key to peace in the Middle East rests with the Palestinian Authority's Mr. Arafat.

"Arafat is causing a lot" of the Middle East's events, said Mr. Ivry, a former military officer. "The elections in Israel are dictated by Arafat."

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak quit as prime minister on Sunday after he lost the support of the majority in the Knesset or parliament, amid violence that has killed more than 300 people, mainly Palestinians, since Sept. 29.

Mr. Barak promptly said he would run for another term as prime minister when a new vote takes place in 60 days under Israeli law. By resigning, he forced an election only for prime minister, not for the Knesset.

But opposition Likud bloc leaders hope to throw the whole Knesset up for grabs because polls show they would increase their seats.

"Barak hoped that by avoiding a general election, he could avert the reconfiguration of the Knesset since polls show that if elections were held today, it would become a more rightward-leaning body," wrote analyst David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. Barak also had hoped that by resigning he could avoid running against the highly popular Mr. Netanyahu. Israel's complex election law allows only sitting members of the Knesset to run when the prime minister quits.

However the Knesset yesterday voted 67-to-35 to allow Mr. Netanyahu to run for the prime minister's position.

Even Mr. Barak, conceding that it would be undemocratic to bar Mr. Netanyahu, voted to change the law and allow him to run.

The bill still faces two more votes in parliament, which could be completed in a few days.

Mr. Netanyahu, 51, left the Knesset after being defeated by Mr. Barak in elections last year and has been lecturing in the United States since then.

He returned to Israel Sunday to a tumultuous reception.

Mr. Ivry said yesterday that Mr. Arafat has tried to turn a political conflict into a religious one.

"We are not against Islam it's a political conflict," he said.

"It's a media conflict," he added, accusing Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority of placing gunmen in positions where Palestinian children and Christians were likely to be hit when the Israelis returned fire.

Mr. Ivry also said the anti-Israel mood in Egypt is "disturbing very much" after 20 years of peace between the two countries.

"We expected a warm peace," said the ambassador. "We feel we deserve a better peace with Israel."

Mr. Netanyahu is far more hawkish than Mr. Barak and Palestinians were expected to have less hope of winning concessions from him than from Mr. Barak.

Even if he does win the right to run against Mr. Barak, still to be decided likely next week is whether the Knesset will dissolve itself and set off new elections for the 120 seats in the legislative body.

Mr. Netanyahu's Likud favors such a vote, because the Palestinian uprising which began Sept. 29 has pushed many Israelis to support its hawkish posture.

However the religious parties, especially Shas, are expected to oppose general elections because they stand to lose seats to Likud.

Likud will hold a primary ballot Dec. 19 to select its candidate to face Mr. Barak. Mr. Netanyahu is expected to replace hawkish former Gen. Ariel Sharon as Likud leader and become the candidate for prime minister.

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