Knesset votes for early elections

This Digest goes to press on December 22, a day after the Knesset voted overwhelmingly for early elections to be held, probably in late April.

If the forecast date is accurate, Israelis will vote a few days before May 4, the date on which Yasser Arafat has said he will unilaterally declare a Palestinian state. Further movement in the Oslo process is unlikely until after the elections take place.

The first reading of the early elections bill was supported by 81 MKs and opposed by 30. Most the cabinet, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon and Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai voted in favour.

Just before the vote, Netanyahu called on opposition Labour Party leader Ehud Barak to form a national unity government. Barak said the offer had come "a little too late".

Foreign journalists traditionally hostile to Israel, and particularly to Netanyahu, gave gleeful coverage to the Knesset debate, and immediately afterwards accused the prime minister of having negotiated the Wye River agreement while having no intention of keeping it.

"The emperor has no clothes," said the BBC. There was no way for Netanyahu to move the Oslo process forward and keep his government in place. The vote capped two turbulent months since the signing of the Wye Memorandum, subsequent outbreak of suicide bombing attempts, widespread Arab rioting, and President Bill Clinton's visit to the region.

Speaking after the Knesset debate, Netanyahu expressed confidence that the Israeli public would return him to office: "The people know that we can best protect the unity of Jerusalem and that we can best protect the security of Israel," he told reporters.

Barak, who is currently ahead of Netanyahu in the polls, said new elections had become necessary because the government was "leading [Israel] into a deadlock". He said Netanyahu was no longer trusted "in the government, in the parliament, and in the public".

Apart from Netanyahu and Barak, possible candidates for prime minister include Likud MKs Uzi Landau and Limor Livnat--who reportedly plan to challenge Netanyahu for leadership of the party--former IDF Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who hopes to form a new centrist party, and Dan Meridor, who is said to be planning to leave the Likud and join forces with Lipkin-Shahak.

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