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Israeli President Calls for Early Elections

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leaping anew into the political fray, Israeli President Ezer Weizman expressed frustration Monday over the long stalemate in Middle East peacemaking and urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold early elections.

Netanyahu dismissed the idea, saying he intended to serve his full four-year term. He said Palestinians, not Israelis, are to blame for the impasse in peace talks. “Peace is very, very close--if the Palestinians do their part,” Netanyahu said.

The post of Israel’s president is largely ceremonial, and Weizman has no authority to set an election date. Still, political analysts said such a public statement of a lack of faith in the government was unprecedented from an Israeli president. They also said Weizman, as he often has, managed to catch and express a public mood--this time, the growing sense of uncertainty over where Israel is headed in negotiations with the Palestinians.

“Weizman is reflecting and articulating a popular frustration and confusion that cuts across the political spectrum,” said political scientist Gerald Steinberg of Tel Aviv’s Bar Ilan University. “People gear up and down, expecting an agreement, then not expecting an agreement. Nobody knows where the country is going with the peace process.”

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Netanyahu’s allies in his conservative Likud Party and within his government criticized the outspoken president for breaking the unwritten rules of his office and weighing in on political matters. Even some left-leaning members of the Israeli parliament said Weizman should refrain from making his views public at a sensitive time in the negotiations.

But other opposition leaders, who promptly echoed Weizman’s call for early elections, praised him for expressing the fears of many Israelis that the peace process, launched five years ago but deadlocked for 15 months, might be drawing its final breaths.

Weizman told reporters in Jerusalem on Monday that the U.S.-mediated peace negotiations are “limping” and noted that the prime minister had apparently dropped a recent idea to hold a national referendum on Israel’s long-delayed promise to turn over more West Bank land to the Palestinians.

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The referendum, along with a Netanyahu suggestion for another international peace conference on the Middle East, has drawn widespread criticism from Palestinian officials and opposition figures who see it as a bid to delay transferring more land to Palestinian control.

It has also been the subject of scathing newspaper commentary, with one editorial writer, Maariv’s Yosef Lapid, describing it as an example of “gimmick-ocracy.”

But Weizman suggested that if Netanyahu is indeed interested in public opinion on his peace policies, he should call for early elections. “If he does not hold a referendum, then I believe the next solution should be elections . . . and the sooner we hold them, the sooner we’ll know what the public thinks,” the president said.

Opinion polls have shown strong public support for a U.S. proposal that Israeli troops withdraw from an additional 13% of the West Bank in exchange for a concrete security program and other measures from the Palestinians. The Palestinians have accepted the U.S. plan but Netanyahu has resisted, asserting that it would endanger Israel’s security.

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Speaking at a Jerusalem news conference with visiting Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, Netanyahu again accused the Palestinians of failing to meet their obligations under existing peace deals and said he was working “day and night” to achieve a strong agreement that would give Israel a secure peace. He declined to comment on whether Weizman had overstepped the ceremonial bounds of his office.

But Weizman himself appeared happy to comment. The maverick president also left no doubt that he fully intended to weather any political storm his latest remarks cause. “I planned this and waited for the right occasion,” he said at one point.

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And Monday evening, in a long television interview, Weizman fired back at critics who said he should stay out of politics, pointing out that Netanyahu has often sought his help in persuading Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and U.S. mediators to give Israel more time to make progress toward peace.

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“If [Netanyahu] asks me to do these things that are certainly political, why can’t I recommend that there should be early elections?” Weizman asked in the Channel 1 interview.

Weizman, who urged Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last summer to “knock heads” if necessary to force an Israeli-Palestinian accord, also chastised U.S. mediators for excessive caution in the negotiations. “The Americans are very, very careful,” he said. “I believe they are too careful.”


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