Netanyahu is warned by settlers not to move Right wing threatens to topple government rather than yield

October 23, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIT EL, Occupied West Bank -- Meyer Gal grew up on this Jewish settlement of red-roofed houses and palm trees that he likens to "heaven." He believes that this land belongs to the Jews and should not be turned over to the Palestinians.

But, unlike many in this community of 4,500, the 21-year-old soldier is a political pragmatist. Although his neighbors would sooner throw Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office than give up their biblical homeland, Gal supports Netanyahu's efforts to hammer out the best deal he can at the summit in Maryland.

"It's the only solution," Gal said yesterday as he entered the local grocery store.

Netanyahu won the prime minister's job with the votes of the nationalist-religious community that has settled the hilltops of the West Bank and the farmland in the Gaza Strip. And since the 1996 election, the 163,000 settlers have dogged the prime minister to protect their communities in a land also inhabited by 2.7 million Palestinians.

Now, as Netanyahu negotiates the return of another 13 percent of West Bank land to the Palestinians, the settlers are among his most vocal adversaries. Leaders of the settlers' council flew to the United States to lobby Netanyahu during the peace summit at the Wye Plantation.

"This is not an agreement. This is not peace," said Aharon Domba, secretary general of the YESHA Council, upon his return from Maryland. "When you'll see the papers, you'll realize the Israeli government folded."

And, in a pointed threat to the prime minister, Domba said the council was committed to an idea, not to a person.

"Don't expect us to compromise on a matter of life and death," he said.

The settlers fear that any withdrawal will further isolate a handful of communities near the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin.

For days now, the right in Netanyahu's hard-line coalition government has threatened to end his rule. The coalition holds a one-vote majority in the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli parliament. But Netanyahu has survived past threats to bring down his government, including some at the time of the more controversial return of the city of Hebron to Palestinian control in January 1997.

The troubled city is home to 450 Jews who live in the midst of 130,000 Palestinians. Hebron has religious significance for both Jews and Muslims because it is the burial place of Abraham, the patriarch of the two religions. The Hebron Jews are among the most fervent settlers.

The Labor opposition has pledged to help keep Netanyahu in power if he proceeds with the long-overdue redeployment of Israeli troops from the West Bank. Israel agreed to three troop withdrawals in the Oslo accords. This would be the second.

But the settlers and other opponents have begun their public campaign to depose the prime minister. For two consecutive days now, residents of Bet El have set up roadblocks outside the settlement, causing traffic jams for area motorists.

The National Religious Party has insisted that any agreement signed with the Palestinians include the extradition of terrorists responsible for the murders of Jews. Without it, "Netanyahu will not have a government and we will go to elections," Education Minister Yitzhak Levy told the Israeli daily newspaper Ma'ariv.

"There is no majority for a one-sided agreement. We see all the commitments as one package," added Tsachi Hanegbi, Netanyahu's right-wing justice minister.

Netanyahu must first win approval of his Cabinet for any agreement he brings back from Maryland. Then, the agreement would have to be voted on in the Knesset.

If the agreement is approved, the right wing would have to take another route to bring down Netanyahu's government. It takes 61 votes in the Knesset to bring down a government. Such a majority would force new elections.

Pub Date: 10/23/98

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