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Monday, December 7, 1998 Published at 21:35 GMT

World: Middle East

Netanyahu wins temporary reprieve

Mr Netanyahu: Last-minute deal eases pressure for now

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has narrowly escaped a vote to call early elections thanks to a parliamentary manoeuvre, which will delay the issue for two weeks.

Binyamin Netanyahu tells the BBC he is not breaking promises on prisoner releases
At the last minute, one of the religious parties within his coalition, United Torah Judaism, submitted a motion of no confidence, which, under Israeli parliamentary rules, requires a delay of at least a week.

That period is likely to be extended by another week because of the planned arrival at the weekend of US President Bill Clinton in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

In Washington in preparation for the visit, the Israeli foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, has warned that Israel could annex parts of the West Bank if the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, unilaterally declares an independent state next May.

He said the planned visit would give the Palestinians false hopes.

Votes running against him

Middle East
The bill to bring elections forward to early 1999 from late 2000 had been submitted jointly by the opposition Labour and Meretz parties to the 120-member parliament, the Knesset.

One report said Mr Netanyahu realised that the numbers were running against him and the opposition were likely to get the 61 votes needed for the bill to pass its first reading.

Earlier he had challenged his critics to try to topple him.

"If they want the government to fall, let it fall," he told Israeli Army Radio.

Before the delay the vote was being seen as one of the biggest challenges to face Mr Netanyahu since Israelis elected him in May 1996 on a promise to pursue peace with security.

Lyse Doucet: "Mr Netanyahu's allies demand a high price - the end of the peace process"
Some MPs believe early elections may be the best way to stop the peace process, which includes the further withdrawal of Israeli troops from 13% of the West Bank.

BBC Jerusalem Correspondent Lyse Doucet says Mr Netanyahu will now be under even greater pressure from members of his coalition who remain fiercely opposed to any transfer of West Bank land to the Palestinians.

West Bank clashes worsen

[ image: The vote comes amid fresh violence]
The vote comes amid fresh violence
On the streets of the West Bank, Palestinian anger is mounting over Israel's continuing detentions of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

More than 50 Palestinians were wounded in a third day of clashes with Israeli troops firing rubber-coated steel bullets.

More were injured when Palestinian police opened fire in the West Bank city of Nablus.

Our correspondent says Mr Netanyahu faces the same hard choice he confronted when he came to power two years ago, whether to save the peace process or save his right-wing government.

Labour ditches support

Despite opposition from coalition partners, Mr Netanyahu has remained in power with the help of the opposition Labour party which wants to see the Oslo peace accord carried out.

Israel Radio's Jerry Lewis: Netanyahu confirms his reputation as a political Houdini
But he angered Labour last week when his cabinet suspended peace moves with the Palestinians.

Last month, the prime minister survived a budget vote but only after Arab deputies and the Labour opposition gave their support.

This time they had warned they will not shore him up.

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