- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

JERUSALEM Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's coalition government collapsed around him yesterday, threatening his ability both to govern and to make peace on the eve of a high-stakes summit with the Palestinians at Camp David.

Three right-wing parties, including Mr. Barak's biggest coalition partner, Shas, announced they were leaving the government, all fearful that Mr. Barak would go too far in his concessions to the Palestinians at the Camp David summit due to begin tomorrow.

The Israeli leader, in a nationally televised address, vowed to go to Camp David anyway. In Washington, President Clinton and other top administration officials warned that a summit failure could have dire consequences.

"If the parties do not seize this moment to make more progress, there will be more hostility and more bitterness perhaps even more violence," Mr. Clinton wrote in this week's issue of Newsweek. "While there clearly is no guarantee of success, not to try would guarantee failure."

"We have always known this is a high-stakes summit," Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright added, speaking on ABC's "This Week." "There's also high stakes if you don't go ahead. The situation there is serious. It could unravel."

Administration spokesman P.J. Crowley said Mr. Clinton, Mrs. Albright and other top aides were meeting at the White House last night to review the situation and go over negotiating positions on the eve of the summit.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yesterday consulted with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the latest in a series of regional diplomatic whistle stops by Israeli and Palestinian leaders preparing for a summit called to hash out their toughest disputes.

A senior Palestinian negotiator said yesterday that any peace agreement with Israel would be brought before the Palestinian people for approval in a referendum.

Both Palestinians living in Palestinian areas and those who live abroad would be included in such a vote, Yasser Abed Rabbo told reporters in the West Bank. He is among the Palestinian negotiators heading to the Camp David summit.

U.S. organizers are going to extraordinary lengths to avoid embarrassing leaks during the summit at the secluded presidential retreat.

It was revealed yesterday that Mr. Arafat would be the only member of his delegation at Camp David with a cell phone that can call outside the compound.

Mr. Barak's political woes mounted yesterday with the announcement that Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy would boycott the summit because he felt the Palestinians were not showing enough flexibility. The decision by Mr. Levy, formerly of the right-wing Likud party, was seen as a symbolic blow to Mr. Barak because the fiery minister has often been a good barometer of public sentiment.

But the prime minister was defiant and angry in his evening address to the nation, tossing aside opposition calls for him to remain home.

"None of these rejectionists will teach me how to defend Israel and its future," he thundered, appealing directly to the people who elected him a year ago people he is convinced still support his quest for peace.

"No one will teach me what security is," he added.

The day began with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident still seen by many as a moral force in Israel, withdrawing his Yisrael B'Aliya party from the coalition, as he had threatened last week.

Then came Shas' announcement, followed quickly by a similar statement from the National Religious Party, which supports settlers in the West Bank and opposes all land concessions to the Palestinians.

"We expect to be genuine partners on the way [to peace]," said Eli Ishai, the Shas party chairman. "But we need to know the way. We don't know the way."

Technically, resignations don't take effect for 48 hours, and Shas has threatened to bolt time and again, only to be reeled back in by last-minute concessions from Mr. Barak. But this time, with the prime minister leaving the country today, his options appeared limited.

And though it seemed Mr. Barak's problems couldn't get any worse, opponents had scheduled three no-confidence votes for today in the parliament. Mr. Barak's office said he would delay his flight to the United States to attend the late-afternoon session.

Under Israel's political system, a prime minister can govern indefinitely with a minority in parliament, though it seriously weakens his authority. If the three parties do not reverse their decisions, Mr. Barak will control only about a third of 120 seats in the Knesset.

But if a no-confidence motion passes by a simple majority of 61 votes, Mr. Barak's government would fall, forcing new elections.

Most analysts predicted Mr. Barak would survive the no-confidence motions, only to remain in a very precarious position.

"He has very little room to maneuver," said Gerald Steinberg, an expert on Israeli politics at Bar Ilan University. "His only chance to reverse this tide is to go to Camp David and get some solid concessions from the Palestinians. Then he could go over the heads of these politicians and take the deal straight to the people" in a referendum.

Achieving a significant change in Palestinian positions appeared unlikely, however.

Ever since Mr. Clinton announced the summit last week, Palestinian officials have been clear about what they will demand: return of all territory captured by Israel in 1967, the right of their refugees to return home, and East Jerusalem as the capital of their independent state.

Mr. Barak, in turn, has said he won't bargain away Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem, won't allow all refugees to return, and won't return all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Still, right-wing parties have been stung by consistent press reports that the prime minister is ready to hand over close to 90 percent of the West Bank, including some Arab neighborhoods adjacent to Jerusalem and part of the Jordan Valley, considered a crucial buffer zone against foreign invasions.

Whatever happens at Camp David, the day's events made clear Mr. Barak has paid a heavy price for his single-minded pursuit of peace with Israel's neighbors in the year since he won a landslide victory over Benjamin Netanyahu.

In that quest, he has dropped allies and made painful compromises on social issues, severely reducing his political base all in the name of holding together an awkward coalition.

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