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Israel's Knesset Backs Rabin, OKs Peace Plan

September 24, 1993|CAREY GOLDBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — The Knesset, rocked by anxious lawmakers shouting at full voice, approved the Israeli-Palestine Liberation Organization peace accord on Thursday in a 61-50 vote that gave Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a mandate to stay in power and push forward with talks.

"Now, we will build a new Middle East," Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said after the historic decision.

Members of the Knesset, or Parliament, outdid their usual raucous debate as they wound up 32 hours of discussions on the accord. Bounding from their seats to shout objections, pointing fingers and slinging personal insults, they spent more time in chaotic din than coherent discussion, with Peres even snapping at one woman to "Shut up!" and telling another opponent, "Get out of here!"

But in the end, lawmakers voted along the usual party lines with only a few exceptions, including three defectors from the Likud opposition who said their consciences would not let them vote against peace even though they saw problems with the accord.

Rabin, who had announced that he considered the vote equivalent to a vote of confidence, expressed quiet satisfaction at the outcome, saying the vote--with eight legislators abstaining and one absent--is enough to assure the government "freedom of action" on peace issues in the future.

But there was no rejoicing in the Knesset or on the streets. Rather, almost on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, Israel appeared to be descending into a contemplative mood that included a strong element of concern over what comes next.

Outside the Knesset, anti-government protesters carried a black coffin with "Zionism" painted on it in white and a sign reading, "Apocalypse Now." Tens of thousands of protesters turned out to oppose the accord when debate began on Tuesday.

During the discussions, Ariel Sharon, the hawkish former defense minister, typified opposition with his warning that the agreement weakens Israel by creating a Palestinian state next to it. "The dangers here go beyond all logic and beyond what the people can permit itself," he said.

The accord, signed Sept. 13, provides self-rule for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the Jericho region, later spreading to the rest of the Israeli-occupied territories. It is considered only an interim agreement, with such major issues as the ultimate fate of Jewish settlements in the territories and Palestinian statehood left for future talks. Peace talks with Jordan and probably Syria also lie ahead.

Peres assured Knesset members with all his persuasive might that the agreement would not lead to gaps in Israel's security. And even if it creates new problems, he argued, it will be an improvement.

"Are there no dangers for Israel now?" he asked pointedly. "Is everything secure for Israel? There's one thing you haven't discussed--the present situation, as if Israel now is Norway or Switzerland. What's the situation now in Gaza? Is Gaza the Garden of Eden now?"

Polls show that most Israelis favor the accord, but Sharon and others put their fingers on the issues that remain most worrisome even for its supporters.

Sharon said he fears that much of Jerusalem will be given over to the Palestinians, even though Peres has sworn it will remain united and Jewish; he warned that "a real war" could develop between Jewish settlers and the Palestinian police now being created on the occupied territories, and he demanded that Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars not be given the right of return.

"What we are doing now is irrevocable, and we must know that," Sharon said.

But for all their doubts, the very idea of moving toward peace pleased Israelis and Palestinians alike.

"We have done the maximum to save lives and bloodshed," Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said.

In East Jerusalem, Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks, said that the narrow majority in the Knesset would be enough to move toward peace.

"We have finished the easy part. Now, we have the task of giving reality to the basic agreement we reached," she said. "We have become partners in peace and no longer adversaries in conflict. So, we congratulate Prime Minister Rabin and his government on this victory."

Ashrawi said that Jan. 1 could be considered a ballpark date for PLO chief Yasser Arafat's arrival in the occupied territories, where he is expected to assume the leadership.

Hints of the difficulties yet in store came Thursday when Israeli police arrested 10 settlers trying to occupy more land adjoining their settlement near Kiryat Arba on the West Bank. Two Palestinians were killed Wednesday night in clashes with Israeli security forces.

Signals from the Likud opposition also pointed of fights to come. Likud member Eliyahu Ben-Elissar grumbled that the vote means that "the PLO and Arabs won a victory--Israel was defeated. It's a decision which Israel will have to pay for, and we'll pay one day.

"We'll do everything we can to convince the public opinion that we are right and that Labor is wrong," he said.

The ruling Labor coalition was somewhat shaken by the abdication of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party whose six members, until now part of the coalition, decided to abstain rather than back the agreement and the vote of confidence. Rabin did not condemn them, saying he knew they had good reasons for voting as they did, and their status was to be decided next week.

Parliament's ratification had not been required for the agreement, but issues of historic significance traditionally go to the Knesset for its stamp of approval.

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