Barak Says He'll Quit, Call New Elections

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, looking haggard and grim, tossed his second bombshell in 12 days into the political arena Saturday night, announcing at a hastily called news conference that he will resign today and face a new election in 60 days.

"Due to the emergency situation the country is in--and the need to continue reducing the violence and moving forward the chances of peace negotiations--I have decided to ask again for the trust of the people of Israel," Barak said, speaking at his Jerusalem office.

"Tomorrow morning I will officially inform the president of my decision to resign and to stand in special elections as the head of the Labor Party for prime minister of Israel."

On Nov. 28, facing increasing pressure from lawmakers, Barak agreed to early elections for both the parliament, or Knesset, and his own job. But his dramatic move Saturday may have improved his chances of political survival by helping him eliminate some of his most threatening rivals inside and outside his party. It will make it nearly impossible for Labor's restive doves, who say Barak could have done more to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians, to challenge his leadership or for former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to run against him.

Under current law, only sitting members of the Knesset can run against a prime minister who resigns. Netanyahu is not a Knesset member, so it would require a change in the law, or a decision by the Knesset to dissolve itself and stand for elections with Barak in 60 days, for the former prime minister to be eligible to run against Barak.

Otherwise, it is hard to imagine a prime minister facing a snap election in more dire political straits than Barak's. His Labor Party, which has been governing in a loose coalition known as One Israel, is deeply divided, with not only the doves threatening to unseat him but even onetime loyalists, such as Interior Minister Haim Ramon, publicly attacking him as a failed leader.

Violence rages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Palestinian gunmen have been picking off Jewish settlers on the roads and soldiers have clashed almost daily with demonstrators. Israel's relations with Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab states with which it has peace treaties, are badly strained. Its international standing has been damaged by what the United Nations has condemned as excessive use of force against the Palestinians.

Polls show that Israelis have lost faith in Barak, the nation's most highly decorated soldier, a man who won a landslide victory over Netanyahu just 19 months ago by promising to make peace with neighboring Arab states and the Palestinians.

Saturday night, what was already a case of election fever among Knesset members became election frenzy as soon as Barak ended his announcement. The prime minister's resignation, said Likud Knesset member Silvan Shalom, showed that he finally understood "what the whole state of Israel knew: that he has failed. And in 60 days the people will turn him out of the prime minister's office." Shalom said he will decide whether to run for prime minister himself in the next few days.

Under Israeli law, Barak has 48 hours to withdraw his decision to resign, but analysts said he is unlikely to do so.

"There are those who doubt the mandate I received from the citizens of Israel," Barak said in a speech carried live to the nation. "Tomorrow I will advise the president of my resignation, and in 60 days we will go to special elections for prime minister." He added that he is proud of his record.

By resigning, Barak moves up elections by several months. Had he simply waited for the Knesset to dissolve itself, there most likely would have been elections for both prime minister and the Knesset in the spring, and Netanyahu was widely expected to head Likud's list as its candidate for prime minister. Recent polls have shown that Netanyahu would crush Barak if elections were held today.

Polls also show the current Likud leader, former Gen. Ariel Sharon, beating Barak, but by a much smaller margin.

"Barak proved tonight that he is a coward," said Limor Livnat, a Likud Knesset member who has said she might run against Barak. The polls convinced the prime minister, Livnat said, that he must eliminate Netanyahu as a challenger.

Left-wing Knesset members hailed Barak's courage in taking what they said was a risky political gamble at a time when his efforts to make peace with the Palestinians are a shambles and the West Bank and Gaza are in flames.

"The prime minister took a fair and courageous decision," said Yossi Sarid, leader of the left-wing Meretz Party and former education minister in Barak's Cabinet. The Knesset, Sarid said, should follow his example.

"It is not right to send our prime minister to elections by himself. After the prime minister's announcement, the Knesset has to dissolve itself," Sarid said.

Avigdor Lieberman of the right-wing Russian party, Israel With Immigration, agreed that the Knesset should dissolve itself and stand for elections with Barak. Lieberman said he hopes the parliament will vote this week on the second and final readings of the dissolution bill it passed last month.

"There is unity now," he said of the fractious body politic. All Knesset members agree, Lieberman said, "that a situation where the prime minister goes by himself to elections is inconceivable."

As he has so often during his brief, tumultuous time in office, Barak seemed to have made his decision virtually on his own and to have informed few of his Cabinet ministers of his plans before announcing them to the nation.

Last month, almost no one in the Labor Party leadership knew of Barak's decision to acquiesce in the move to dissolve the Knesset before he strode to the podium and delivered his speech. On Saturday, Barak called in his few remaining loyalists among Labor's Knesset faction, and one said that resignation had come up but that Barak did not tell them what he was about to do.

Barak said that if the Knesset wanted to change its laws to allow anyone to run, he would support such a move. But analysts said it would be difficult to pass such a law in time for the election. In an echo of the ongoing battle for the presidency in the United States, Likud Knesset member Yuval Steinitz said that "in a democratic system, the principle that any citizen can compete should be maintained," and he vowed that he will appeal to Israel's Supreme Court to rule that anyone can run for prime minister in the upcoming election.

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