Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Thursday urged the Knesset to "give peace a chance" and ratify his agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to turn over control of much of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Calling the vote a motion of confidence in his Labor-led coalition government, Rabin was expected to win with a razor-thin margin that mirrors the deep schism in Israel over the peace agreement.
At least one Labor Party hawk in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, defected to the opposition for the vote, and Rabin worked hard throughout the day and night to prevent further desertions. The vote, anticipated in the early hours today, was expected to be 61 to 59, but some political observers predicted a tie, which the government could still turn into a stamp of approval.
During his 45-minute opening speech, Rabin tried to capture center ground in the debate over the shape of peace, promising that he would not return the country to its narrow borders of 1967, before Israel captured the West Bank during that year's Six-Day War.
Rabin was heckled and interrupted by the opposition as he vowed that Jerusalem would remain united and that some Jewish settlers would remain in the West Bank, even after the third and final stage of negotiations with the Palestinians, set to begin in May. He said his ultimate goal is a Palestinian self-governing "entity," less than a full-fledged Palestinian state.
"Lies, lies," the opposition yelled as Rabin then went after the moral high ground.
"The Jewish people who have suffered so much after 2,000 years of exile returned to our homeland, only we found it occupied with the Palestinians," the prime minister said.
"Thousands of people from both sides were killed in the struggle for this piece of land. Today, after wars and numerous acts of bloodshed, we rule over more than 2 million Palestinians and run their lives. . . . This is not a solution for peace. We can continue to kill and be killed, but we can also try to stop this bloody cycle. We can give peace a chance," he said.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the opposition Likud Party leader who aspires to replace the prime minister next year, countered with a fiery speech accusing Rabin of abandoning Jewish values and holy sites. He said the Rabin government is "the most alienated, most distant from the Jewish heritage of the people of Israel that has ever been in our history."
Netanyahu accused Rabin of lying to the public and "galloping back" to the 1967 borders of Israel, at which point Labor member Yoam Lass snapped that the right-wing Likud leader was simply "paranoid."
"Since when are you an expert on psychiatry?" shot back a member from the Likud side.
The shouting over the 460-page interim agreement signed by Rabin and Arafat in Washington last week was interspersed by the ringing of several of Israel's ubiquitous cellular telephones. The chairman of the Knesset ordered the mobile phones turned off for the sake of decorum, already in short supply at the feast of insults in which both sides partook hungrily.
All 120 members of the Knesset were entitled to five minutes to speak on the agreement, and by late Thursday night it appeared nearly all would take their allotted time with an eye toward next year's first-ever election primaries.
The seemingly endless debate was punctuated by wild arm waving and pointing while each side accused the other of trying to buy votes with promises of fancy cars and seats in the next government.
Representatives of the 900,000 Arabs who are Israeli citizens accused Netanyahu of wishing to continue Israel's occupation and domination of Palestinians.
Rabin's leftist coalition partners from the Meretz Party, meanwhile, charged that he must go further to seek a Palestinian state and evacuate all 400 Jews from the center of Hebron, a city of 120,000 Palestinians.
At nightfall, several thousand Jewish settlers from the West Bank and other opponents of the peace accord gathered in Jerusalem's Zion Square for a peaceful protest. They marched to the Knesset under police guard, with Israeli flags and banners declaring "Hebron Forever Jewish."
The interim accord is the second phase of the September, 1993, peace agreement between Rabin and Arafat. It extends Palestinian self-rule from the Gaza Strip and the city of Jericho to much of the West Bank.
Under the agreement, Israel is to fully withdraw its troops from six Palestinian towns--Janin, Tulkarm, Kalqilya, Nablus, Bethlehem and Ramallah--by the end of the year. Partial redeployment in the seventh, Hebron, is to be completed by the end of March.
Palestinians will also gain control over most of 450 West Bank Arab villages, although Israeli troops will retain control of Israeli settlements, new bypass roads and rural areas. The Israeli troops may also re-enter villages when they deem it necessary.
Netanyahu had acknowledged before the Knesset session that Rabin would probably win the vote, but during his speech he charged that the government does not have enough support to go forward with the peace agreement.
Under Israeli law, Rabin did not have to seek parliamentary ratification, and an aide said he would go forward with the agreement regardless of the vote. But the government clearly wanted the Knesset's stamp of approval.