US Eyes Israel Turmoil for Easing of Mideast Tension

For America, a unified Israeli government that can advance the peace process with the Palestinians is seen as key to gaining stability in the troubled Mideast region.

An internal crisis in Israel comes at a moment when the US is having a difficult time persuading its Arab allies to take Washington's position in its standoff with Iraq.

At loggerheads with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policies, the Clinton administration is likely to welcome any reconfiguration that might revive the Middle East peace process and prevent Arab anger at Israel from becoming a stumbling block in dealing with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Making the US administration's frustration clear, President Clinton refused to see Mr. Netanyahu while he was in the US to address an annual American Jewish conference last Sunday.

Pressure has grown internally, as well. When Israeli Minister of Industry and Trade Natan Sharansky announced last week that he was in favor of making Netanyahu forge a national unity government, a reporter responded dismissively, "Isn't that like being in favor of motherhood and apple pie?"

The suggestion that no politician can go wrong in a divided Israel by raising the flag of national unity may have been true in the past. But for Netanyahu, it might not be enough.

Several leading figures in Netanyahu's ruling party, Likud, have conspired to get a majority of its disgruntled members in parliament to break away, and take the party name and finances with them.

The latest winds of mutiny grew out of the party's convention last week. Netanyahu succeeded in having the Likud's election primaries abolished, giving him more power to decide who will run in the next elections.

The Likud insurgents have little in common ideologically and include both the most moderate and hawkish wings of the party. In fact, all the dissidents seem to have in common is a disdain of Netanyahu, or an aim to replace him.

Mutiny "is a real possibility," says Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "But I don't think it's a very easy scenario to organize. The fact that it is being organized serves as an indicator that Netanyahu did go too far and irritated too many people too many times."

Predictions of Netanyahu's demise could send him on a search to form a national unity government. But Mr. Diskin points out the perennial problem: It is when Netanyahu is in a weak position that he most needs Labor, and when the opposition party in turn chooses to let him squirm, hoping his government will tumble.

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