Israeli Leader's New Clout Allows for Firmness on Peace

Netanyahu, first directly elected premier, copies White House powers

When Benjamin Netanyahu became the first prime minister directly elected by the Israeli public, he saw a window of opportunity for a powerful premiership without precedent. But he wasn't content to just jump through that window - he enlarged it on the way.

So when the right-wing premier walks through the doors of the White House tomorrow for his first summit with President Clinton, he brings the beefed-up powers of a man who has used his public mandate and political savvy to refashion a parliamentary democracy into something resembling an American presidency.

And it means that the reins of the Mideast peace process are more firmly in his hands. Previous Israeli premiers had to move cautiously to avoid offending domestic critics. And any intransigence Netanyahu shows may bode more ill for peace than in the past, while any moves toward peace he makes may be more concrete than in the past.

Netanyahu operates on a different plane from any of his predecessors. By changing the election law to allow voters to cast one vote for prime minister and one for parliament, Israel freed its premier from catering to partisan demands to the extent necessary in the past. With a direct mandate, he is less a slave to those who could keep him in check if he strays too far from the party line.

It is a mandate that Netanyahu, who spent some of his most formative years in America, is molding into an administration set to change the type of leader Washington will be dealing with in the Middle East peace brokering.

In his first week on the job, Netanyahu set up Israel's first-ever National Security Council (NSC) and a Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), which mirror their American counterparts. The NSC, analysts say, waters down the traditional power of the defense ministry and will let the prime minister's office make more decisions - a step closer to the American system's executive branch.

Netanyahu then appointed inflation-fighter Jacob Frenkel, the central bank governor, to head the CEA. The council is the cornerstone of plans to show the world an attractive face of economic reform and privatization, which he hopes might offset fears that the new hard-line Likud government spells doom for the Arab-Israeli peace process and the economic progress it has helped spawn.

To prove the point, he was keen to push through his new economic package before leaving for the US, a bonus to tout when he meets with business leaders and investors. Last week, he won approval for a plan to cut $1.5 billion from Israel's bloated budget deficit in 1997, wresting votes from ministers who had yet to agree on whose departments would be slashed.

"The legal framework and personality are two of the factors involved in creating something that is a mixture between a parliamentary leadership and a presidency," says Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

But checking Netanyahu's power are the ministers from his own Likud party - including a few who stepped aside in the election race so he could be the sole right-wing challenger. They are less enamored of the ideas he picked up while living in the US in high school and college, and later as UN ambassador. His foreign minister, David Levy, threatened to quit if Netanyahu did not find a Cabinet spot for hawkish former general Ariel Sharon before leaving for Washington. Such rancor has been common in the premier's short tenure, and Netanyahu has reprimanded outspoken ministers frequently.

The new and empowered premier has made other moves to fortify his regime, including taking control of the state-run Israel Broadcast Authority - the main television news provider - from the Communications Ministry and putting it under his direct control.

And with his victory speech, Netanyahu began earning a reputation as Israel's great communicator in an age of sound bites. The crowd called him by his nickname, chanting "Bibi, King of Israel," harking to the Hebrew song, "David, King of Israel."

This is the Netanyahu, fresh from domestic triumphs, who Clinton faces this week in a meeting that will set the tone for US-Israeli relations and the peace process. Observers expect a relatively benign meeting, noting that neither Clinton nor presidential candidate Bob Dole will be keen to clash with Israel so close to the US election day.

Indicative of Netanyahu's power was his statement that a meeting with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat would happen only when Netanyahu was ready. An Israeli spokesman said of US pressure for such a meeting: "I can tell you that's not going to happen any time soon."

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