JERUSALEM -- The Israeli parliament voted late yesterday to dissolve itself and hold early elections, rejecting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's handling of peace with the Palestinians and officially signaling the end of his beleaguered government.
Netanyahu weathered broadsides from the right and left as he stood before the Knesset, or parliament, to defend his record and, as it turned out, launch his campaign for re-election.
Capping a day of political wheeling and dealing that was both dramatic and chaotic, the Knesset turned aside a last-minute attempt by Netanhayu to hold onto power by offering to form a "unity government" with his foes, and voted overwhelmingly to stage elections a year ahead of schedule. Final approval for the measure should come in the next few days.
Israel had already put peace-making efforts on hold, and the advent of a campaign season will freeze those efforts indefinitely -- a prospect that immediately drew fire from the Palestinians.
The demise of the Netanyahu government had been building for weeks. His undoing, in the end, was the U.S.-brokered Wye peace accord. The right objected to the deal. The left objected to Netanyahu's failure to carry it out sufficiently.
Signing the accord last October made Netanyahu the first right-wing Israeli leader to agree to give away sizable chunks of land to the Palestinians. It was something his coalition of rightists, religious leaders and nationalists could never accept.
Most members of Netanyahu's swiftly collapsing coalition -- and Netanyahu himself -- joined in voting for early elections, giving lopsided approval to the bill. The measure must be voted on two more times in the next few days, and while anything can happen in Israeli politics, Monday's margin of 81 votes to 30 appeared to ensure approval.
Netanyahu put the best spin on his fate, vowing to come back a winner. He will remain in office as a caretaker with full powers during the campaign.
"So we'll go to the people and let the people decide, and I'm sure that the people will decide correctly," he told reporters at the end of the five-hour Knesset debate. "I am not afraid for my political future. We'll see massive public support for our positions."
Timing is critical because Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is threatening to declare an independent state on May 4. If elections are close to that date, Netanyahu can use the Palestinian threat as a ready-made campaign issue that would rally the same right-wing support that he counted on until now.
Momentum to topple Netanyahu's government grew in recent weeks. As the prime minister's coalition deserted him, the left also became increasingly disenchanted with what it viewed as Netanyahu's abuse of the Wye accord.
His once skillful ability to appeal to different factions at the same time began to catch up with him, and he lost credibility with foes and erstwhile friends.
"He tried to fool all of the people, all of the time," said Haim Ramon, the Labor Party Knesset member who sponsored the early election bill that succeeded yesterday. "One day he'd lie about something to the left wing, the next day he'd lie about something to the right wing. The common denominator of the extreme left and the extreme right now is that they feel lied to."
Netanyahu was elected to a four-year term 31 months ago, narrowly defeating Shimon Peres, who had replaced assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. From the beginning, Netanyahu resisted the framework Oslo peace accords that he inherited from his Labor predecessors and only reluctantly fulfilled their requirements. For much of his government, he and Arafat were not on speaking terms.
He has been criticized for reversing much of the spirit of trust that Labor had created with the Palestinians. On the other hand, he brought the right further into the peace process than many thought possible.
Some found the U.S.-schooled Netanyahu to be arrogant and abrasive, but he was also the master of glibness and charismatic sound bites.
His natural command of English made him a regular on American television, where he effectively argued Israel's case.
The election season is expected to bring forth a cast of candidates, including Ehud Barak, the head of Labor, and Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a popular former army chief of staff whose political positions are unknown but who has taken on a remarkable following. Speculation is that he will head a new centrist party, and he is already leading in some polls.
Pub Date: 12/22/98