Netanyahu takes charge Israel's cabinet: Likud's moderates and minor parties strengthened

June 21, 1996

READING ELECTION RETURNS as more a personal than party mandate, Benjamin Netanyahu formed a cabinet that over-represents minor parties in his coalition, raises moderates in his Likud Party and holds its hawks in check. As Israel's first prime minister to be directly elected by the people, he has behaved more presidentially than his predecessors from Day One.

The Arab governments that have made or contemplated peace with Israel are understandably alarmed. But their summit in Cairo tomorrow, the first since 1990, should reaffirm their commitment to dialogue. From Mr. Netanyahu's inaugural speech they can select passages that make agreement possible or impossible, as they wish. Denouncing his more intransigent positions is not enough if they do not also address terrorism and Arab rejectionism that provoked the Israeli outcome.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher can get a better idea of the possibilities when he visits Israel next week, and should reaffirm the policies of the U.S. government, which were not changed by Israel's election.

The conservative coalition controls 66 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, making the government vulnerable to walkout. Mr. Netanyahu has been solicitous of his dovish predecessor, Shimon Peres, as though holding the possibility of a future Likud-Labor coalition in reserve. Mr. Peres nonetheless criticized him.

Mr. Netanyahu speaks English like an American. Foreign Minister David Levy speaks Arabic and French. Mr. Levy, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Internal Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani are Sephardic Jews born in Arab countries. The bellicose Rafael Eitan was given the agriculture and environment portfolio, and put on collision course with the equally hard-line Ariel Sharon, who was offered a lesser position he refused as demeaning.

Religious parties won portfolios that may make Israel more theocratic than their support warrants. The Russian leader Natan Sharansky was rewarded with two cabinet posts for his small, new-immigrant party. Borrowing the American idea of a national security council, Mr. Netanyahu appears to be reducing the role of the cabinet, an innovation that remains to be seen in practice.

The changes are generational as well as ethnic and ideological. At 46, Mr. Netanyahu is the first Israeli leader born in the State of Israel.

Keeping the peace process going will be a challenge, not inevitably insurmountable. Making the Israel-PLO and Israel-Jordan accords irreversible is now a U.S. priority.

Pub date: 06/21/96

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