Israel's Embattled Prime Minister Sheds Allies

Benjamin Netanyahu has weathered many a storm in his short tenure as prime minister of Israel, but he has never looked as tired and defeated as he did in a press conference hastily called to respond to the resignation of his foreign minister, David Levy.

Mr. Levy's angry departure from the government reduced to a single vote the majority that Netanyahu can count on in the Knesset. But Mr. Netanyahu's problem is not his majority in parliament, as his comfortable victory over the budget the day after Levy departed demonstrated. His problem, now compounded by Levy's exit, is that, as one observer noted, "all of his friends and his party detest him.... There is no single person who trusts him among his supporters."

And if David Levy, Ariel Sharon, and others in his camp have no faith in Netanyahu's words or deeds, how can Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat, or Hosni Mubarak?

Netanyahu had hoped that his budget battle and the Levy resignation would enable him to postpone what many fear, and others hope, will be a day of reckoning with the Clinton administration later this month. In the end, his troubles managed to postpone his Washington meeting with Bill Clinton by only eight days - to Jan. 20.

The Clinton administration viewed Levy, along with Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, as allies in squeezing from Netanyahu a credible commitment to the Oslo process. Yet Levy's differences with Netanyahu were more tactical than strategic. Like most prominent Israeli politicians before him, Levy wants to exploit Israel's power to lead a diplomatic process, in tandem with Washington, rather than be led into concessions from a position of weakness, as he believes Netanyahu is doing.

Levy's departure leaves Mr. Mordechai as the sole champion of the Washington connection in the Cabinet. His backing for a second redeployment, now said to head Washington's peace agenda, is weakened by Levy's departure. Mordechai's threat to leave the Cabinet is an effort to rebuild momentum for such a move.

Netanyahu is now more dependent than ever on the good graces of the rejectionists in his own camp, along with those in the National Religious Party and the Moledet faction. Pleasing them will mean spurning US efforts to coax a second redeployment of whatever dimension.

Until now, Netanyahu has been able to drag the rejectionists along with him as he removed the Israeli Army from one-third of Hebron and got the Cabinet to approve, in principle, a second West Bank redeployment.

Keeping hard-liners "on the bus" has been the fear that a discredited Netanyahu government will not be replaced by one led by a rejectionist from Netanyahu's own Likud Party (like Benny Begin, son of the former prime minister), but by Labor leader Ehud Barak. Whatever fears the Israeli right expresses about Netanyahu, very few are willing to take the chance that Mr. Barak and his Labor Party will be better able, or even willing, to protect their territorial interests in the West Bank or Golan Heights.

For a growing number in the Likud, however, their months in power have brought the realization that there is little difference between their views of the territorial future of the West Bank and those articulated by the Labor Party. When Ariel Sharon is prepared to accept the idea of a Palestinian state led by the PLO, can the rest of the party of Begin be far behind?

There is only one obstacle to a government of national unity - Benjamin Netanyahu. Levy's resignation has raised the profile of those seeking to translate this de facto consensus into political reality. Among the "princes" of the Likud, Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo and former Finance Minister Dan Meridor are viewed as the most likely builders of a centrist party based on anti-Netanyahu defectors.

Former Labor government Finance Minister Bega Shohat has proposed a centrist government led by a Labor/Likud coalition. Such a government would exclude the rejectionist rump of the Likud, the religious parties, and Netanyahu. No one, including Labor, is ready for new elections anytime soon.

Netanyahu may be a failure at governing, but he is a great campaigner. There are credible reports that Netanyahu himself plans to call new elections in the fall of 1998 - when his Likud rivals would be preoccupied with their own campaigns for municipal office in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The election would be fought on the question of Israel's policy for final-status talks with the Palestinians.

Levy's resignation may force a reconsideration of this timetable. Instead of the final status, Netanyahu may go to the voters on the question of a second redeployment - before he is pushed to the polls by his ever-tightening circle of opponents.

* Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.

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