Barak survives - just

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The Independent Online

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government narrowly survived no-confidence motion in parliament.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's government narrowly survived no-confidence motion in parliament.

The 120-member parliament voted 50-50, with eight abstentions.

The vote came after a stunning upset, saw a little-known opposition lawmaker elected Israel's new president, defeating former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The victory of Moshe Katsav of the hawkish Likud Party spelled a humiliating end to Peres' half-century political career and dealt another serious blow to beleaguered Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Both men have broadly back moves for peace and reconcilliation with the Palestinians.

Barak's teetering minority government faced the challenge in parliament over his willingness to make land concessions to the Palestinians.

A number of coalition legislators have defected to the opposition in recent weeks, and his foreign minister, David Levy, this week threatened resignation. Hawkish legislators said Monday's presidential vote was a protest against Barak's peace policies and that they did not expect his government to survive much longer.

"I think this is another stage in the revolution that will take place in the next few months when there will be elections and the right-wing camp will return to power," said Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party, one of three factions that quit Barak's coalition ahead of this month's inconclusive Mideast summit at Camp David, the U.S. presidential retreat.

Peres had been the front-runner in the race for president, and was the public's favorite. Informal opinion surveys had given him a two-to-one lead over Katsav, who never rose above second-tier Cabinet posts in his 23 years in politics.

However, in two rounds of voting Monday, Katsav won 63 votes in the 120-member parliament, compared to only 57 for Peres, the architect of breakthrough peace agreements with the Palestinians.

After the first round, Peres wandered slowly back into the plenum, his hands in his pocket and an expression of shock and hurt on his face. Legislator Eli Goldschmidt of Peres' One Israel faction said it was difficult to see the pain of Israel's elder statesman.

"Shimon Peres' place in history is assured," Goldschmidt said. "Apparently, a person's greatness does not necessarily translate into an ability to win elections."

After regaining his composure, Peres briefly congratulated the winner.

A Peres ally who spoke on condition of anomymity said that several One Israel legislators had backed Katsav.

Barak's office on Monday denied allegations that the prime minister had encouraged faction members to vote for Peres' rival.

Peres and Barak have had an ambivalent relationship, with Barak trying to curb Peres' political clout and relegating him to a minor Cabinet post.

Observers have said Barak was half-hearted in supporting Peres' bid for the presidency, fearing his former rival would use the post to expand his power base.

In an indirect bonus for Barak, Peres' defeat was expected to discourage the disgruntled foreign minister, Levy, from siding with the opposition in Monday's no-confidence vote and bringing down the government.

In the event of a Peres victory, a Levy ally from the tiny Gesher faction would have taken Peres' seat in parliament, bringing to three the number of Gesher legislators, the minimum size for eligibility for party financing.

With Gesher remaining a two-member faction, Levy cannot pull his party out of the One Israel alignment without losing access to public campaign funds. It was seen as unlikely Levy would try to force early elections without sufficient funding.

Barak survival means he will not have to worry about parliamentary challenges to his peace policies again until late October, when the Knesset reconvenes.

Meanwhile, Katsav, the jubilant winner promised to promote national unity, a difficult task in Israel, a nation troubled by divisions between rich and poor, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, new immigrants and veteran residents.

The presidency is largely ceremonial, but the incumbent, Ezer Weizman, has used the prestige of the post in support of Mideast peace efforts.

Peres, who led his reluctant nation to peace negotiations with the Palestinians in 1993, had been expected to turn the presidency into a platform for assisting the negotiators. As a member of the hawkish Likud party, Katsav opposes far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians, including the creation of a Palestinian state.

The mild-mannered Katsav started his career as Israel's youngest mayor in the 1969, when he was 24. He was elected to the parliament in 1977 and rose to tourism minister and deputy prime minister.

Born in Iran, he presented himself as the representative of Israelis of Middle East origin. Peres had counted on the support of many of the 22 religious lawmakers.

When he was prime minister, his governments were consistently generous to the ultra-Orthodox, a chronically impoverished sector of Israel's society. However, officials in the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said all 17 legislators of the faction supported Katsav.

They said that on Sunday, Shas' spiritual leader, nonagenarian Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, had a vision that Katsav was favored by the heavens. Kadouri's aides called nearly all legislators and urged them to vote for Katsav.

The ultra-Orthodox have identified more with the Likud's foreign policy in recent years, and many see Katsav - who himself is religiously observant - as the more sympathetic candidate.

Peres has had a topsy-turvy political career, holding nearly all of Israel's top jobs over the years, but also losing four of five elections for prime minister.

Peres served as prime minister three times, twice succeeding his longtime political rival, Yitzhak Rabin, and once in a rotation agreement after a deadlocked election. He was seen both as a visionary marching far ahead of his people and a merciless politician.