Facebook Twitter

Israeli parliament approves bill on early elections; Levy resigns

SHARE Israeli parliament approves bill on early elections; Levy resigns

JERUSALEM — Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy submitted his resignation and parliament approved early elections in a preliminary vote Wednesday, as Prime Minister Ehud Barak's coalition unraveled further over his peace policies.

Barak will be able to cling to power at least until late October, though, since parliament heads into a three-month summer recess after Wednesday's turbulent session. Barak said he would press on with his agenda, including peace talks with the Palestinians.

The two sides have until Sept. 13 to reach a treaty. Both said new ground was broken at last month's Camp David summit, even though it ended without agreement. Barak supporters have said that once a treaty is concluded, he could call early elections and turn the vote into a peace referendum.

Barak played down the significance of Wednesday's 61-51 elections vote, which needs three more readings. Asked whether there would be elections soon, he said: "Absolutely not."

Some former Cabinet ministers voted against Barak, including Levy, who submitted his resignation moments earlier.

Barak said he would try to reshuffle his coalition soon, but Wednesday's vote suggested that the defectors were not considering a return to the government.

Three hawkish parties, including the ultra-Orthodox Shas, had left the coalition even before Barak flew to Camp David, saying they feared he would succumb to U.S. pressure and make too many concessions.

Barak wandered around the unicameral parliament Wednesday as a roll-call vote was held. He smiled and appeared unperturbed. After Levy cast his vote, Barak sat down next to him in the row of seats reserved for Cabinet ministers. The two spoke cordially and even shook hands.

In a news conference just an hour earlier, Levy accused Barak of having betrayed him. The foreign minister, a one-time hardliner who switched political camps ahead of the May 1999 election, said Barak never let on how far he was willing to go in giving in to Palestinian demands.

Levy, who had refused to accompany Barak to the summit, said the prime minister agreed to a de facto division of Jerusalem, the city claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as a capital.

"For the first time, on the issue of Jerusalem, we were prepared to divide Jerusalem, and even at this moment there is no way to back away from this promise," said Levy.

In his election campaign, Barak had pledged he would never agree to a division of the city. After returning from Camp David, he said that while many ideas were raised, Israel did not commit itself to specific proposals in the talks.

In the midst of his political troubles, Barak claimed a diplomatic coup, saying President Clinton plans to move his country's embassy to disputed Jerusalem before he leaves office on Jan. 20.

U.S. officials, however, would only repeat Clinton's comments made last week that he is reviewing the option of moving the embassy and would make a decision by the end of the year.

After the summit talks collapsed, Clinton expressed concern that the Palestinians would make good on their pledge to declare statehood unilaterally on Sept. 13, the treaty deadline, if there is no agreement for a final peace deal.

Clinton suggested that this would prompt him to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Congress has mandated the move, but Clinton in the past invoked an option to delay it to avert damage to peace prospects.

Some militant Islamic groups have threatened to target U.S. diplomats if the United States moves its embassy.