Diving for Cover, Israeli Leader Talks of 'Unity'

Netanyahu seeks political center as he loses right-wing

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing the almost oxymoronic task of trying to please far-right constituents while implementing peace accords with the Palestinians. One way out of this political minefield could be a national unity government, which would have Mr. Netanyahu share power with his archrivals, the Labor Party. It's an option Netanyahu says he's mulling over.

As Israel is inching closer to final-status talks that could alter the borders of the Jewish state, Netanyahu says he wants a broader consensus that will produce a deal more likely to last.

And the idea is taking on new urgency as he prepares to cede land to Palestinians in the disputed West Bank town of Hebron - a prospect that is already losing him support among the most conservative of his supporters, who were key to his election victory. A unity government could gain Netanyahu support at the political center.

In a recent satellite speech to US Jewish leaders meeting in Seattle, Netanyahu said he wants to seek a dialogue "... between all parts of the Israeli political sphere in order to come to these pivotal negotiations from a united point of view."

If so, Netanyahu would seek an alliance with the party he defeated six months ago only after he clinches a deal on Hebron.

Seven weeks of talks without a breakthrough show the difficulty he has in convincing his coalition's nationalist and religious parties that the peace process should continue as planned.

Unity only after a Hebron deal

"Once the interim problems are resolved, the distance between the Likud and Labor is not [so] great," says David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu's media director.

"There is a certain bridgeable gap. What he's saying is, if the Labor Party wants to join in, after a while he would change the government guidelines so they would feel more comfortable," Mr. Bar-Illan told the Monitor.

The Likud party platform opposes a Palestinian state and supports strengthening Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which are predominantly Palestinian. The Labor Party, anxious to continue the peace-making it initiated, recently removed opposition to Palestinian sovereignty from its platform.

Bar-Illan insists that although the parties speak about autonomy in different terms, there is common ground. And however reluctantly, the mere fact that Netanyahu is dealing with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is evidence of a near-revolution in the Likud party, which has long denied Arafat's legitimacy.

Support for a national unity government seems strong among Likud moderates. And were Netanyahu to pursue the idea, it would allow him to dump coalition members such as the National Religious Party, the patron of the Jewish settler movement.

But talk of unity could be a ploy

But just for that reason, many analysts say Netanyahu may be raising the specter of national unity to scare his right-wing ministers out of trying to undermine him.

"Every time he moves a little toward the middle and the extremists cry foul, he talks about a national unity government to whip them into shape," says Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "He's bringing his extremists into line by saying, 'If you don't back me, someone else will.' "

The pronounced split in Israeli politics has led to national unity governments in the past. Twice in the 1980s, Labor and Likud shared power, either because neither could form a coalition or because the government was too susceptible to a no-confidence motion. Since neither condition is present just now, Netanyahu would be ceding some power simply for the good of the nation.

And some critics think that would be out of character for Israel's youngest and first directly-elected prime minister, who had hoped to rule like a president.

"He's a man of major ego," says Bernard Susser, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, "and a national unity government would be an admission of failure."

A majority of Israelis want to see the peace process continue. According to Tel Aviv University's Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, 63 percent have faith in the peace process in general, and 57 percent back the plan that was being formulated by the Labor government and the PLO until May of this year - which would lead to creation of an independent but demilitarized Palestinian state.

Most Labor Party members, however, say they are still more interested in beating Netanyahu than joining him.

"Toppling him should be our main aim," says parliament member Yossi Beilin, an architect of the 1994 Oslo accords. "We can't join a Likud coalition that says there will be no foreign sovereignty on the West Bank."

Haim Ramon, a top contender to be Labor Party leader, said yesterday that joining the government with its current agenda would be "committing ideological suicide."

Sources in the Labor Party say Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres would join Netanyahu only if the Labor doyen was made foreign minister with joint control over the peace process. But Mr. Peres, now suffering from accusations he told Mr. Arafat not to bow to Netanyahu on Hebron, is dogged by his reputation as a schemer who might try to undermine the premier.

And the potential for infighting makes many Palestinians wonder if it would really be worth having the Labor leaders - with whom they made peace - at the table again.

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