Barak's troubles deepen as foreign minister resigns

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The Independent Online

Another wheel fell off Ehud Barak's government yesterday when the Foreign Minister, David Levy, a fierce critic of the handling of last month's Camp David talks, resigned.

Another wheel fell off Ehud Barak's government yesterday when the Foreign Minister, David Levy, a fierce critic of the handling of last month's Camp David talks, resigned.

It came as the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, paid its final disrespects to the struggling Prime Minister before the recess by supporting - with an absolute majority of 61 - a preliminary vote for early elections.

Though not unexpected, Mr Levy's resignation is a blow upon a bruise for Mr Barak,largely the result of his peace dealings with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and especially his decision at Camp David to discuss dividing Jerusalem. On the summit's eve Mr Mr Barak's coalition collapsed, shrivelling his support to a third of the Knesset.

He has lost half his ministers and on Monday the Knesset rejected his candidate for president - the former prime minister Shimon Peres - for a relatively unknown right-winger, Moshe Katzav.

Mr Barak's standing in the Knesset has sunk to such depths that he might not win its approval for a deal with the Palestinians, especially if the terms include returning land in annexed east Jerusalem.

Mr Barak now has the three months of the Knesset's summer break to secure his survival. He can be expected to push hard for a peace agreement so that he can call early elections that could double as a referendum on peace.

The right-wing Mr Levy had been out of step with Mr Barak for months. He boycotted the Camp David talks and then complained of not being kept informed of their contents. He never truly fulfilled the responsibilities of foreign minister and was always outside the cabal of old military chums and political strategists in Mr Barak's inner circle. Nor has he exhibited many diplomatic skills - he speaks no English, and never entirely lost the rough edges of his past in the construction industry. That much was clear in February, when he made a blood-curdling speech about avenging Hizbollah attacks on Israel with "a child for a child". At the time Mr Barak was trying to extricate Israel from south Lebanon.

Lately, to Mr Levy's annoyance, the far smoother Public Security Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, became a pivotal player in the talks with the Palestinians. Mr Ben-Ami is now his possible replacement. Another potential successor is Dan Meridor, a right-winger who heads parliament's foreign affairs and defence committee.

Mr Levy, who was also a deputy prime minister, wanted Mr Barak to create a government of national unity, which would have meant further limiting his hand by coupling the One Israel bloc with the right-wing Likud party.

But the future of Jerusalem played a big part in Mr Levy's decision to go. "For the first time, on the issue of Jerusalem, we were prepared to divide Jerusalem and even at this moment there is no way to back away from this promise," Mr Levy said, adding that he was "very, very afraid for thefuture".

His resignation was one of two blows suffered by Mr Barak's administration yesterday. Though only a preliminary vote, the 61-51 majority for early elections served notice on the Prime Minister that the government could be toppled.

Mr Barak has blamed Mr Arafat for the failure to reach at agreement at Camp David, as have the Americans, but Israeli domestic politics may prove the biggest obstacle. Mr Barak has until late October to cobble together a government without fear of being undermined by the Knesset.

He will try to squeeze a deal out of Mr Arafat - with the help of pressure from his US allies - and call early elections, which he will present to Israel as the promised referendum on a peace deal. But the chances of bridging the gaps, especially over Jerusalem, in such a short period seem minimal. And, even if he does, there will be accusations from the right that, with his government in collapse, he has rushed through destructive "compromises" to save his skin.

The Palestinians, who have the weaker hand in the talks, at once saw an opportunity to steal the initiative. Their leading negotiator, Nabil Shaath, said: "I think the road toward a solution is open for both of us."

Yesterday , in defiantly buoyant mood, Mr Barak said elections are "much further away than you think", and compared his predicament with that of Yitzhak Rabin, whose administration survived for months with the support of the Arabs in the Knesset.