A Divided Israel Waits for First Acts By Next Premier

Netanyahu's peace moves seen as crucial test

Benjamin Netanyahu, the victorious Likud party leader who's soon to become Israel's youngest prime minister, faces a daunting challenge: He must reconcile two visions of the Jewish state.

His victory in the May 29 election was due largely to votes from religious Israelis untrusting of Arab promises of security. But the narrowness of his win may compel him to deal with secular Israelis eager to continue the present peace process begun by the losing Labor Party.

At a pragmatic level, he must balance the political debts he owes to right-wing supporters with the formidable pressure expected from international investors, Western donors, the Clinton administration, and political opponents at home.

His first attempts at this political tightrope walking will come as he assembles a ruling coalition and a Cabinet in coming days.

Netanyahu was set to lay out his strategy for attacking these issues in a victory speech last night.

The next steps of the Labor-led peace process are likely to be stalled or ignored as Mr. Netanyahu moves to create bridges between the two polarized camps of Israeli society. He must also try to ensure that economic benefits brought to Israel by the peace achieved so far are not undermined.

But peace issues may push to the fore sooner than Netanyahu would have chosen: First, he will have to decide in the next few weeks whether to proceed with the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the conflict-ridden West Bank town of Hebron, as promised by his predecessor but delayed until after the election for security reasons.

Second, the right-wing Likud mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, has vowed to close the offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jerusalem. Netanyahu will have to moderate this situation, which could explode into violent conflict with the Palestinians and lead to a suspension of the peace process.

He also will have to decide whether to heed mounting calls from supporters and foes alike to assemble a government of national unity, which would include some members of the outgoing Labor coalition in his Cabinet. His tiny electoral majority may force him into such an arrangement.

Cabinet conundrum

In setting up a Cabinet, Netanyahu's dilemma is this: Seven political parties are clamoring for seats at his 18-seat table. Aides say he plans to allocate two ministers each to Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party, which won nine seats in the Knesset (parliament), and the National Religious Party (NRP) which won 10.

He plans to give just one seat each to the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party, United Torah Judaism (four Knesset seats), and the predominantly Russian immigrant party, Israel Be'aliya, of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky (7 seats).

That would leave 12 Cabinet posts. The other parties that fall under the Likud umbrella - David Levy's Gesher Party and Rafael Eitan's right-wing Tsomet Party - are expected to get at least one Cabinet post each. That would leave only 10 Cabinet posts for Likud itself.

Diplomatic dialing

Meanwhile, in the arena of diplomacy, before the Jewish Sabbath began Friday, a top Netanyahu aide had a conversation with senior Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. He also had conversations with outgoing Prime Minister Shimon Peres, President Clinton, King Hussein of Jordan, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

"The call to Mr. Abbas was a courtesy call in which both parties assured each other of their positive intentions," says Tel Aviv University political scientist and Netanyahu aide Dore Gold.

"But no plans have been made yet for a meeting," Mr. Gold said in an interview.

Arafat shocked

Publicly, Mr. Arafat reacted calmly to the toppling of Mr. Peres, insisting that Netanyahu had no option but to honor all agreements entered into between Israel and the Palestinian Authority under the Peres government. But aides said privately that Arafat was in a state of shock.

Talks on controversial "final status" issues began with the Peres government last month but concentrated on procedural issues rather than matters of substance.

For his part, Peres congratulated Netanyahu and pledged assistance for a transfer of power.

Following his conversation with Netanyahu on Friday, President Clinton said he is "convinced that Mr. Netanyahu was committed to pursuing the peace process." Clinton invited Netanyahu to visit the United States, a trip he is likely to make as soon as he has finished forming a new government.

But lest Netanyahu spend too much time on peace issues and courting the US, an editorial in the Jerusalem Post points out what many Jews feel should be his primary allegiance to them.

Calling Netanyahu's win the "most stunning political upset in Israel's history," the Post stressed the fact that despite the Likud leader's slender majority, he had emerged with 61 percent of the Jewish voted compared with Peres's 39 percent.

"The result should help stem the trend against the state's Jewish identity," said the editorial, suggesting that proposals by left-wing Labor officials that the country should change its flag and anthem to accommodate the aspirations of the some 1 million Israeli Arabs might have backfired.

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