Weakened Israeli coalition survives 1st of several tests Netanyahu faces West Bank pullout, no-confidence vote

January 06, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Sun staff writer Mark Matthews contributed to this article.

JERUSALEM -- Israel's often-fractious coalition government held together yesterday and approved the 1998 budget, giving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his first victory in the latest challenge to his 19-month-old administration.

The 58-52 vote came a day after Foreign Minister David Levy resigned, threatening to undermine the prime minister's hold on power. Only one member of Netanyahu's coalition broke ranks from the group comprised of Netanyahu's hard-line Likud coalition, the nationalist settler movement and religious Jews.

But while the budget passage was viewed here as an easy win, Netanyahu's coalition is expected to face tougher tests over domestic and international issues.

At home, Netanyahu must survive a no-confidence vote next week, and members of his coalition reportedly have become increasingly dissatisfied.

Israel TV's Channel 2 said yesterday that Netanyahu came under unprecedented criticism by his allies during a Cabinet meeting before the budget vote. Netanyahu was accused of mishandling Levy and bringing Israel's economy to an all-time low, the broadcast said.

In foreign affairs, the prime minister will face a tougher time preserving the coalition on the issue of withdrawing additional Israeli troops from the West Bank.

The withdrawal ostensibly is the basis for Netanyahu's meeting Jan. 20 with President Clinton. But the prime minister has yet to provide the United States with the size and scope of the next redeployment -- specifics that Netanyahu says his governing coalition can only determine.

The troop withdrawals from the West Bank are set out in the 1993 Middle East peace accords signed by Israel and the Palestinians in Oslo, Norway, and a January 1997 agreement that facilitated the return of the West Bank city of Hebron to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian authority. The latter pact stipulated that Israeli troop removals must be completed by mid-1998.

Washington has told Netanyahu that it expects a "significant and credible" troop pullback. But hawks in the prime minister's coalition who oppose the land-for-peace concept of the Oslo accords have threatened to topple the government if too much West Bank territory is returned.

The resignation of Levy, a moderate in Netanyahu's hawkish Cabinet and a proponent of the peace accords, leaves Netanyahu more vulnerable to the hard-liners, say commentators and analysts.

Dennis Ross, President Clinton's Middle East peace envoy, arrives here today for talks with Netanyahu and Arafat to prepare for the January meetings both men will attend separately at the White House.

"The peace process continues. This is a process about peace and not about people. And the U.S. government believes it needs to move forward based on what it thinks is best, and not based on the particular makeup of a particular government at a particular time," said James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman.

"We have seen governments and political entities in the region in states of turmoil for a long time, and we have still gone forward with trying to negotiate and nudge and push for progress," Rubin said.

"Dennis was set on traveling and he's going to travel," said a U.S. official, who declined to be identified. "We're not going to permit anything to be used as an excuse" for not moving ahead with the peace process.

Almost as important as the amount of territory vacated is the contiguity of populated areas, officials say.

Palestinians want to see an eventual state begin to take shape. In addition, Americans want see a pause in Israeli settlement-building on the West Bank and an agreement by both sides to move ahead quickly with talks on the "final status" issues, including East Jerusalem, borders and refugees.

From the Palestinians, the White House wants a more serious and consistent effort at fighting terrorism.

U.S. officials were hesitant in attempting to assess Netanyahu's future, or whether the current crisis will make him more or less flexible in negotiating with the Palestinians.

But Ira Sharkansky, a political analyst and professor at Hebrew University, warned that pressure from the United States "during a time when the Netanyahu administration is hanging on by its fingerprints" could contribute to efforts to bring down the government.

Ehud Barak, leader of the opposition Labor Party, would like nothing better. He characterized the Netanyahu government as "a plane running out of fuel that is about to crash into the mountainside."

But Netanyahu has pointed out that previous governments have functioned with as slim a majority as that of his coalition in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. It would take 61 votes in parliament to bring down the government and force new elections. Netanyahu's coalition holds only 61 out of the 120 seats in parliament, making it extremely vulnerable.

Privately, a Western diplomat who follows the situation closely was pessimistic about the peace process, saying Netanyahu faces a choice of either limping along with a one-vote majority or trying to strengthen his right-wing support, both of which make significant progress on the peace process less likely.

Pub Date: 1/06/98

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