Steep political climb to peace Netanyahu faces tough job of selling accord to his party

No-confidence vote planned

Most Israelis support actions to increase security, polls show

October 25, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF Sun staff writer Jessica Lazar contributed to this article.

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returns home today to the arduous task of selling an interim peace deal to his fractious coalition, defusing hostile protests from the nationalist settler camp and securing his political future.

Already, one-time allies are reminding him of his election-year promise never to cede the biblical land of Israel to the Palestinians.

But the hard-line candidate who opposed the land-for-peace formula of the Middle East peace accords has always been a political pragmatist.

And the agreement Netanyahu signed Friday in Washington achieved what a majority of Israelis wanted to move the deadlocked peace process forward -- tougher security requirements of the Palestinians in exchange for more West Bank land.

The signing of the Wye Memorandum puts the articulate leader of the new right squarely on a path that could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state from land considered by Netanyahu's hard-line Likud bloc to be the Jews' biblical homeland.

"He finally joins Oslo 2 1/2 years late. This is an important agreement because it takes away an obstacle, it opens the way to permanent status negotiations," said Uri Savir, a key player in the 1993 peace agreement reached under the previous government.

"It didn't create new trust, but it did create a new fact in the Israeli political landscape."

While some political analysts point to this as a historic shift, Netanyahu did carry out the controversial 1997 redeployment of Israeli troops from the city of Hebron, holy to both Muslims and Jews.

But it isthe first agreement he has signed with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader and former guerrilla.

When pressed, Netanyahu has said he will honor Israel's commitment to the Oslo peace accords -- but he is intent on doing it his way and in his own time.

Ron Pundak, an Israeli architect of the Oslo accord, noted that a recent Gallup poll of the Israeli public showed that 81 percent supported a continuation of the Oslo process.

"Eighty-one percent you can't ignore," he said.

Despite Netanyahu's candid and sober comments at the White House ceremony, some skeptics question whether the Wye Memorandum will ever be carried out.

A slippery slope

The road ahead may well prove to be a slippery political slope for the 49-year-old prime minister.

Netanyahu must first win approval for the agreement from his coalition Cabinet and then from Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

Tomorrow, he will address the parliament and face the first no-confidence vote, this one sponsored by a small, right-wing party.

Netanyahu's decision before the Wye summit to name Ariel Sharon, a political hawk and popular Israeli general, as foreign minister gave him a strong ally in the Cabinet and parliament.

Sharon, who participated in the marathon Wye talks, said Israel achieved "a number of significant gains."

The opposition pro-Oslo Labor Party also promised to give Netanyahu its votes in the parliament if he needs them to pass the Wye Memorandum, which will implement commitments made by the Israelis and Palestinians but not carried out. But Labor leader Ehud Barak said his group's support is limited to this issue.

If the extremist right and the nationalist settler movement have their sights on toppling Netanyahu, they could find another issue to do so with Labor's help.

But political analyst Joseph Alpher said the Israeli right will have to reassess its options.

"They have to ask themselves where to focus their efforts, to vote the government out and teach Netanyahu a lesson, knowing he may be re-elected or Barak may be elected," said Alpher, the Jerusalem representative to the American Jewish Committee.

"Or try through provocation to create a situation where the agreement can't be carried out."

Yoshua Matze, a Cabinet minister, has warned that "anyone who will work to topple Bibi [Netanyahu] is taking upon themselves the risk that a leftist government will come to power and lead Israel back to the 1967 boundaries" before Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

Nonetheless, settlers planned to block West Bank roads today to protest the agreement.

Yehudit Tayar, a spokeswoman for the Yesha council of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, said the council would hold an emergency meeting today to discuss its strategy.

"There is a very great likelihood that, as diligently as we tried to elect Netanyahu to office, we will exert at least as much effort to make sure the Netanyahu government falls," she said.

Chance of early elections

However, if Netanyahu concludes that the right is "adamant in joining the opposition, and it's just a matter of the next vote of no confidence then he may indeed assess that the best thing to do is take the initiative" and call new elections, Alpher said.

The political challenges facing Netanyahu will coincide with a key element of the Wye Memorandum -- the start of the long-overdue final-status negotiations.

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