Knesset members pushing harder for early elections

JERUSALEM — A key Israeli legislator has warned that if a majority of Knesset members support early elections, he will ask legislators to return from their summer recess to vote on the issue.

The warning came from Hanan Porat, chairman of the Knesset law committee, after the committee held a stormy session Wednesday on two bills — one to dissolve the Knesset and hold early elections, and the other to abolish the direct election of the prime minister.

The early elections bill, which 60 legislators backed in a preliminary Knesset vote July 29, just before the body began its recess, still must pass three more votes — the first of which is expected to take place after the legislature reconvenes Oct. 19.

The law committee met this week to prepare the legislation for that vote, but no action was taken.

Labor Knesset member Haim Ramon expressed confidence Wednesday that a majority of the 120-member house would be on record supporting the measure after the two Moledet lawmakers decide to support early elections.

But coalition chairman Meir Sheetrit disagreed, saying there was no chance of gathering at least 61 votes if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes ahead with a further redeployment from the West Bank.

"The only chance for the government to fall is if there is no progress in the peace process," Sheetrit said.

That view does not seem to be shared by Porat, whose National Religious Party is one of the coalition members that remains opposed to yielding any more territory to the Palestinian Authority.

In fact, Porat's suggestion that he might speed up the legislative process that could bring down the government was seen as a warning to the premier to not go ahead with the redeployment.

Netanyahu left no doubt where he stands on both bills. He has said repeatedly in recent weeks that elections will be held in 2000, as originally planned. And, unlike some key members of his own Likud Party, Netanyahu is also strongly opposed to election reform.

Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau is one of the co-sponsors of the bill to amend the election system, which passed the Knesset in a preliminary vote in May. Landau insisted Wednesday that if there are early elections, they should be held with a different system for electing the premier.

Netanyahu is the first premier elected under a new system that went into effect for the 1996 elections. Israeli voters cast two ballots, one for prime minister and the other for a political party's list of Knesset candidates.

Before the change in the election system, voters cast only one ballot for the Knesset list under the assumption that the head of either Labor or Likud, the nation's two major parties, would become premier.

Election reform advocates from across the political spectrum have charged that the new system actually has weakened the powers of the prime minister because the separate ballot system strengthened the presence of smaller parties in the Knesset and, therefore, in the governing coalition.

Opposition Knesset members, meanwhile, charged that by combining deliberations on both bills — early elections and changing the system of electing the premier — Porat was actually seeking to bury both bills.