Although Barak survived the first of two no-confidence motions Monday in parliament, which would have brought down the government on the eve of a U.S.-sponsored peacemaking summit with the Palestinians, the vote embarrassed Barak and left his hold on power far from firm
The no-confidence motion, brought by the opposition Likud party, had posed the last hurdle before his departure for the crucial summit at the Camp David retreat outside Washington.
"It was childish behavior that we saw today," said a relieved but obviously annoyed Barak after the vote. "The government did not fall, and I am continuing onward to Camp David."
Barak was leaving immediately to catch his plane for the flight to the Camp David summit.
With stunning speed, Barak's painstakingly constructed coalition government collapsed around him Sunday, threatening his ability both to govern and to make peace with the Palestinians.
Three right-wing parties, including Barak's biggest coalition partner, Shas, announced they were leaving the government, all fearful that Barak would go too far in his concessions to the Palestinians at the Camp David summit due to begin Tuesday.
What's more, Barak's foreign minister, David Levy, said he would boycott the summit because he felt the Palestinians were not showing enough flexibility. The decision by Levy, formerly of the right-wing Likud party, was seen as a symbolic blow to Barak because the fiery minister has often been a good barometer of public sentiment.
"The most important thing is that Prime Minister Barak was elected on a mandate to make peace. And the sense is tht the Israeli people are behind him on this, and that is the important aspect of this," U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told CBS News' The Early Show. "He is the leader, and he is coming with that kind of a sense that the people of Israel want the peace."
Barak was defiant and angry in a Sunday evening address to the nation, tossing aside opposition calls for him to remain home.
"None of these rejectionists will teach me how to defend Israel and its future," he thundered, appealing directly to the people who elected him a year ago people he is convinced still support his quest for peace.
"No one will teach me what security is. I must distance myself from all the political controversies and party considerations to find the way to peace that will end the conflict of blood between ourselves and our neighbors."
The day began with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident still seen by some as a moral force in Israel, withdrawing his Yisrael B'Aliya party from the coalition, as he had threatened last week.
Then came Shas' announcement, followed quickly by a similar statement from the National Religious Party, which supports settlers in the West Bank and opposes all land concessions to the Palestinians.
"We expect to be genuine partners on the way (to peace)," said Eli Ishai, the Shas party chairman. "But we need to know the way. We don't know the way."
Technically, resignations don't take effect for 48 hours, and Shas has threatened to bolt time and again, only to be reeled back in by last-minute concessions from Barak. But this time, with the prime minister leaving the country Monday, his options appeared limited.
Most analysts predicted Barak would survive the no-confidence motions, only to remain in a very precarious position, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante.
"He has very little room to maneuver," said Gerald Steinberg, an expert on Israeli politics at Bar Ilan University. "His only chance to reverse this tide is to go to Camp David and get some solid concessions from the Palestinians. Then he could go over the heads of these politicians and take the deal straight to the people" in a referendum.
Achieving a significant change in Palestinian positions appeared unlikely, however.
Ever since President Clinton announced the summit last week, Palestinian officials have been clear about what they will demand: return of all territory captured by Israel in 1967, the right of their refugees to return home, and east Jerusalem as the capital of their independent state.
Barak, in turn, has said he won't bargain away Israel's sovereignty over Jerusalem, nor allow all refugees to return, nor return all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Still, right-wing parties have been stung by consistent reports that he is ready to hand over close to 90 percent of the WesBank, including some Arab neighborhoods adjacent to Jerusalem and part of the Jordan Valley, considered a crucial buffer zone against foreign invasions.
In another, yet unrelated, blow to the Israeli government, the nation's president, Ezer Weizman, will resign on Monday. The 75-year-old Weizman became embroiled in scandal over financial improprieties after police began investigating him in January for accepting large cash gifts from a French millionaire.
Faced with harsh public criticism over his financial dealings, the former airforce chief and cabinet minister announced in May that he would bring his retirement forward by three years.
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