Facebook Twitter

Barak sees ‘moment of truth’

Defiant Israeli vows to forge on for peace

SHARE Barak sees ‘moment of truth’

JERUSALEM — His coalition in tatters hours before his departure for the Camp David summit, a defiant Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that he carries the will of the people with him as he works for peace with the Palestinians.

"The moment of truth is upon us," Barak said. "Just a year ago the public gave us a mandate to lead, not to protect what exists, but to change the reality from its core and to assure the future of Israel."

"I am not going alone. With me are almost 2 million voters . . . citizens who want peace, who want to give change a chance, and hope for a different Israel at peace with its neighbors."

The prime minister was constantly heckled by right-wing opponents as he addressed the Knesset, or parliament, during a debate on two-confidence motions brought by parties aimed at toppling him.

"Can I even speak here?" he asked at one point, rattled by the heckling.

He compared himself to past Israeli leaders who encountered opposition when making difficult decisions for the nation: David Ben Gurion when establishing the state of Israel, Menachem Begin when making peace with Egypt, Yitzhak Rabin when talking peace with the Palestinians.

He repeated pledges he has made before: that he would not agree to Israel's withdrawing to pre-1967 borders, that a united Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and that Israel would "not take moral or legal responsibility" for the problem of the Palestinian refugees who wish to return home.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Monday that Barak can make peace with Yasser Arafat despite Barak's political woes.

Albright told The Associated Press that Barak's election was a mandate to make peace and that the Israeli people have shown that they still back him while aware of some of the concessions he is ready to offer the Palestinian leader.

"He is not going to make an agreement that jeopardizes his people," Albright said.

Barak had been due to leave for Camp David on Monday morning but delayed his departure to attend the parliament session. He was expected to survive the no-confidence votes but emerge a badly weakened leader.

On Sunday, his carefully constructed coalition fell apart with stunning speed when three rightist parties bolted in rapid succession, saying they feared Barak would go too far in his concessions to the Palestinians.

The biggest blow was the departure of Shas, Barak's biggest coalition partner with 17 parliament seats. The ultra-Orthodox party said it also planned to vote against Barak in the no-confidence motions.

The first motion was brought by the opposition Likud party, headed by former defense minister Ariel Sharon.

"The prime minister who wanted to be prime minister of everybody within a year has become a prime minister of almost no one," Sharon argued.

"To my dismay, you are conducting a dangerous process," he added. "A prime minister who can't make peace in his nation, let alone his own government, can't make peace with the Arabs."

In another blow Sunday, Barak's foreign minister, David Levy, said he was boycotting the summit because he hadn't seen any flexibility from the Palestinians. Many thought, though, that Levy was upset about being left out of the inner circle making decisions about the peace process.

Likud officials were calling on Levy to "return home" to the party, from which he defected during the term of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In spite of the increased strength of the opposition, political commentators did not believe it would succeed in mustering the 61 out of 120 votes needed to bring down the government.

Barak was said to be heartened Monday by a poll published in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, in which 55 percent of respondents thought Barak should go to the summit despite the political developments, and 45 percent thought he shouldn't.

When asked whether, considering the developments, Barak still had a mandate to make concessions to the Palestinians, the results were similar: 53 percent said yes, and 44 percent said no. The poll was conducted among 502 Israelis, with a margin of error of 4.5 percent.

The balance between the two sides in parliament appeared to be held by the centrist Shinui party, with six seats, and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, with five. Shinui said Monday it would abstain from the no-confidence votes — good news for Barak, although he would have preferred explicit support.

Shinui, a secular party, has been critical of the government because of concessions it has made to the ultra-Orthodox parties. However, it has supported Barak's efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

Barak has not said explicitly what he would do if he does lose the no-confidence votes. The law says elections must be held within 90 days. During this time Barak would remain prime minister, though the opposition would surely question his moral authority to take major decisions affecting the nation.

Earlier Monday, Barak made a brief visit to Cairo for consultations with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He told Mubarak any agreement between Israel and the Palestinians at Camp David will require concessions on both sides, according to his entourage.