JERUSALEM -- The Israeli government formally froze its 2-month-old peace accord with the Palestinians yesterday in an attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to woo right-wing support ahead of likely elections.
His ruling coalition in pieces, Netanyahu faces a parliamentary vote today that most politicians believe will topple his government. To avoid that embarrassment, the prime minister is expected instead to order new elections that will embroil Israel's tumultuous political scene at a delicate time in Middle East peacemaking.
At yesterday's Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu sought and received unanimous approval for a list of demands he wants the Palestinians to meet before Israel cedes additional West Bank land. There was one abstention, from moderate Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani, who, tellingly, supports dissolving the government and going to early elections.
The Cabinet vote was largely pro forma, because the peace process, reinvigorated by the U.S.-brokered Wye peace accord reached in October on Maryland's Eastern Shore, has in fact been paralyzed for weeks.
A hallmark of that accord was that it transformed U.S. officials from mediators to arbiters, something that the Palestinians especially embraced. But now the Clinton administration, whose envoys normally would be busy keeping compliance on track, is judged too distracted by its own problems to focus on the peace plan.
"It is clear [the Israeli government] didn't expect pressure from us when they took this vote," a Washington official said yesterday.
Ever since he signed the Wye accord, Netanyahu has been under attack from his right-wing supporters, who oppose relinquishing what they see as God-given land to the Palestinians. Opposition also is growing on the left, where many believe Netanyahu is backing away from what he agreed to and destroying chances for lasting peace.
The hard line taken by Netanyahu yesterday immediately attracted renewed support from Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank. They are an influential lobby and praised the freezing of the Wye agreement.
Israel missed a deadline on Friday to withdraw troops from an additional 5 percent of the West Bank. Netanyahu said, and the Cabinet affirmed yesterday, that Israel will complete its obligations after the Palestinians complete various conditions.
These include halting violence and incitement to violence; accepting Israel's terms for releasing Palestinian prisoners; collecting illegal weapons; arresting suspects in killings; and renouncing any intention of declaring independence in May.
The Palestinians say they are meeting most of their Wye accord commitments or are in the process of doing so. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat accused Netanyahu of looking for pretexts to renege on an accord he never wanted in the first place.
In the political drama that will unfold today, it is likely that the parliament, or Knesset, will be dissolved, and elections for both prime minister and the 120-member legislative body could be held as early as two months from now.
That is the easy part. It would occur against a backdrop of intense political jockeying and deal-making, as members of more than a dozen parties and factions realign and posture.
Pub Date: 12/21/98