IN THE NEWS #457 - Israel Calls Early Elections

By Cynthia Kirk

This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program IN THE NEWS.

Israel has begun to prepare for early elections, expected in April or May. Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to call early elections in a surprise announcement this week. Parliament had threatened to dismiss his government and force new elections.

Mr. Barak has lost support for failing to end the violence in the West Bank and Gaza. About three-hundred people have died so far, mostly Palestinians. Israel took control of those areas in the Nineteen-Sixty-Seven war. Palestinian protesters demand an end to Israeli occupation.

Mr. Barak is also blamed for failing to reach a final peace agreement in talks near Washington in July. Mr. Barak offered Palestinian rule over ninety-percent of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejected his proposals.

Mr. Barak is a former general who campaigned for office on promises to work for peace. He heads the Labor Party. Israelis elected him to a four-year term in May of Nineteen-Ninety-Nine. Mr. Barak won a huge victory over former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu withdrew from politics after his defeat. But observers say he is preparing for a return. In fact, they say he could defeat Ariel Sharon, the leader of the opposition Likud Party, as that party's candidate for prime minister.

Many people blame Ariel Sharon for the current situation in the Palestinian territories. The violence began in September, after he visited a holy place in Jerusalem sacred both to Muslims and Jews. With him were hundreds of Israeli soldiers and police. He said he wanted to show Israeli control over the Holy City.

For the past several weeks, Prime Minister Barak had been seeking an emergency coalition with Likud in an effort to end the violence. But, he refused to give Mr. Sharon the power to veto peace efforts. Ariel Sharon is strongly disliked among Arabs for his part in Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon.

Mr. Barak will remain prime minister until the elections. Experts say in order for him to win a second term, he must reduce the violence in the West Bank and Gaza. They say he also needs a major peace deal with the Palestinians.

This week, Mr. Barak proposed to give up ten-percent more land in the West Bank. He also offered to recognize a Palestinian state under a possible extended temporary agreement. But Mr. Barak would postpone talks over future control of Jerusalem. He also said the issue of Palestinian refugees who want to return to Israel could be settled in two or three years.

Palestinian officials rejected the plan. They say they want a permanent agreement, one that would create an independent Palestine with east Jerusalem as its capital.

This VOA Special English program IN THE NEWS, was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Steve Ember.

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