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CNN Today

Peace with Palestinians Could Be Barak's Best Hope for Re- Election

Aired December 18, 2000 - 1:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suffered a setback today in his comeback bid. In the Knesset, the ultraorthodox Shas Party, whose members are now considered the power brokers in Israeli politics, decided that it would not back general elections for parliament.

Now Mr. Netanyahu said that he will not run for prime minister unless those elections are held. This development comes as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators prepare for a key round of talks in Washington.

We get the latest from CNN's Jerrold Kessel.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The man who says he will win re-election as prime minister, Ehud Barak, was concentrating on what analysts say is the only real chance he has of winning: making a peace deal with the palestinians.

GILAD SHER, SENIOR BARAK ADVISER: Prime Minister Barak is pretty indifferent to the developments in the Knesset. He is pursuing his own strategy towards resuming the peace talks.

KESSEL: Mr. Barak's foreign minister planned to head directly from the key votes in parliament to those peace negotiations in Washington on Tuesday. The two issues are closely intertwined, he says.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI, ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTER: In the case that we have an agreement before the elections, the elections will be a kind of referendum.

KESSEL: The Palestinians say they hope the talks aren't simply a means of catering to Mr. Barak's election needs. They believe, they say, there can be an accord within weeks if Israel is genuine about it, though Yasser Arafat says he's aware of the twists and turns in Israeli politics.

YASSER ARAFAT, PRESIDENT, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY: Don't forget that we had a signed agreement with the Israeli government and the Israeli leadership. And we have to continue with the Israeli leadership, which will be elected by the Israeli people. KESSEL: Many Israelis believe it's the Palestinian leader who actually holds the key.

YISRAEL HAREL, ISRAELI SETTLER LEADER: Who's going to be next prime minister will not be decided by the Israeli voters but by Yasser Arafat.

KESSEL: The vital questions, say some Israelis: Will the Palestinian leader be prepared to conclude some sort of agreement with Ehud Barak before the election on February 6th or not?

Benefiting from Mr. Netanyahu's predicament, the present right- wing Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon, considered another hard liner on peace. But even Mr. Sharon has begun campaigning on how best to secure a peace. Pointedly, this poster, seen all over the country, declares that Sharon is the man to bring Israel true peace.

TOM SEGEV, ISRAELI AUTHOR: At this time, there is only one issue, and that is peace with the Palestinians. This is the issue of this election. This is what should be the issue of this election. Only one issue: peace with the Palestinians.

KESSEL (on camera): Whether this accelerated late peace drive is genuine or geared primarily to the Israeli election may remain an unanswered question for now. Either way, however, Ehud Barak has forced the issue of peace with the Palestinians to become the agenda of the election campaign.

Jerrold Kessel, CNN, Jerusalem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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