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Israeli-Palestinian peace process expected to dominate election campaign
JERUSALEM (CNN) -- After Israel's parliament began moves Tuesday to dissolve itself and hold an early election, key government officials said Prime Minister Ehud Barak's troubled peace process would be the main issue in the election campaign.
The right-wing opposition introduced a bill for the new election as part of moves to oust Barak. He has been under fire over his stance on peace talks with the Palestinians and for his handling of recent violence in which almost 300 people have died, most of them Palestinians or Israeli-Arabs.
'I'm prepared for elections'
Pre-empting an almost certain defeat Tuesday in a parliamentary vote to dissolve his government, Barak told the Knesset:
"You want elections, I'm prepared for elections. ... I'm proud of what I've done and what my government has done."
The 120-member Knesset overwhelmingly approved the bill at its first reading. It must also be approved at second and third readings to become law, a procedure expected to take several weeks.
If the measure passes the various votes, Barak will end his term about two years early.
Despite the prospect of early elections, Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told CNN the government would continue with its peace efforts.
"Obviously, the peace policy is a major component of our agenda," he told CNN, shortly after Barak's surprise announcement.
He predicted the election would be in the spring, "maybe April or May," and that Barak's government would continue efforts to curb eight weeks of clashes and resume peace talks.
Ben-Ami said fresh efforts were under way to curb the violence.
Referring to the Palestinians, Ben-Ami said: "It's up to them. We are not going to force anybody to conduct peace talks with us; it's two to tango. If the Palestinians are willing, after this violence subsides, to proceed with peace talks, we will be ready to conduct them."
Opposition members knock peace process
Likud opposition party leader Ariel Sharon indicated, during an interview with CNN, that he could be the candidate running against Barak in elections.
Criticizing Barak's peace efforts, Sharon said he would seek "a realistic peace, a different way."
"I personally don't believe we can reach, at the present time, a permanent agreement," said Sharon, referring to unresolved final-status issues between the Israelis and Palestinians.
He said it would be a "mistake (for Barak) to try and make a peace at any cost, just to save himself."
Silvan Shalom, the Likud party Knesset member who proposed the early elections bill, said it would have passed with or without Barak's support.
"He has failed to give us peace; he has failed to give us security," Shalom said.
Peace still possible, Israeli official says
Ben-Ami, though, held out the possibility that Israelis and Palestinians could still strike a peace deal.
Both sides, in fact, have recently begun "a series of contacts" to reduce the level of violence, a necessary step to resume peace talks, he said.
"We have detected, in recent days, a more serious attempt by the Palestinian leadership to bring an end to this stage of violence, and I think that should be encouraged," he said. He added that Israel was about to implement "a series of confidence building measures." These included withdrawing some Israeli forces, opening bridges and allowing the passage of construction material and equipment, he said.
In recent weeks, Israeli officials have imposed security restrictions on movement across the borders of the West Bank and Gaza with Israel. Economic and social restrictions for Palestinians living in Gaza were relaxed on Monday due to the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
In recent days, top Palestinian and Israeli security officials held a flurry of meetings aimed at renewing cooperation on the ground.
It was also disclosed that the head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, Avraham Dichter, met in Cairo, Egypt, last Sunday with the top Palestinian security official, Mohammed Dahlan.
Last week, Israel blamed Dahlan's security unit for a rash of attacks on Israeli settlers and troops in Gaza.
Ben-Ami said Barak's government could take credit for "a turnaround in the Israeli economy, after three or four years of recession" under the previous government of Benjamin Netanyahu .
U.S. President Bill Clinton, he said, would be welcome to help again to mediate peace talks.
"I trust that both the Palestinians and ourselves will be very happy if he gets involved again," Ben-Ami said, adding that Clinton's departure from office on January 20 would be "an important date, no doubt" in considering an agenda for peace talks.
Barak was elected to a four-year term in May 1999. His minority government has been steadily losing support as violence has persisted in Gaza and the West Bank, and it has been in peril since parliament returned from recess a month ago.
U.S. offers muted reaction to Barak election announcement
The White House reacted cautiously to Barak's announcement that he would call for early elections rather than form a national unity government, an option which Barak had previously explored in talks with Sharon.
"We knew this was one of the options available and it was not hard to see this coming," said a senior administration official directly involved in peace efforts with the Israelis and Palestinians.
Other officials said the White House has done very little game-planning in advance of Barak's move because they had no idea how it would affect Barak's approach to coping with Palestinian violence or trying to rebuild the peace process. A bigger wild card, they say, will be Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's reaction.
"It remains their peace process," said one senior official. "It's up the prime minister and the Palestinians to tell us what to do in the time we have left. Both sides have to live up to the obligations of the Sharm El-Shiekh agreement and reduce the violence."
The White House will have no official reaction to Barak's move, said Press Secretary Jake Siewert. One official described Barak's move as a matter of "internal Israeli politics."
White House and State Department officials said violent clashes must subside before any semblance of a peace process can be constructed.
"The focus has to be ending the violence no matter what political process is taking place ...the focus has to be finding a path back to peace," said a senior State Department official.
"Our belief is that Israel is committed to the peace process," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
Earlier Tuesday, another senior U.S. official intimately involved in Mideast peace talks sounded a cautious, mildly optimistic note that both sides "may have reached a point where they see it's in their interests to pull back." The official cited the fact that after almost two months of non-stop bloodshed, no one appeared to have died Monday in Israel or the Palestinian territories.
"It was a little quieter," the official said. "But there have been numerous false starts before ...We need to see if that represents a new code of behavior."
Numerous U.S. officials have expressed concern that violence in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank -- as well as throughout the Middle East -- could escalate during Ramadan.
Officials said that according to the Muslim faith, if someone is killed during Ramadan it is believed that person will go directly to heaven.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Commission on Israeli-Palestinian violence to visit Mideast
Knesset, The Israeli Parliament
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