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Netanyahu Tightens His Tenuous Grip on Power

Politics: Israeli premier invites rival into Cabinet in bid to stave off right-wing critics of peace deal.

November 26, 1998|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Little more than a month after signing a peace accord with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting to shore up his increasingly shaky coalition.

Amid growing political turbulence, Netanyahu on Wednesday invited an old rival to return to his Cabinet in a move to stabilize the government. The expected naming of former Foreign Minister David Levy to a Cabinet post was seen as evidence of the Likud leader's need to face down right-wing opponents who have become daily critics.

Israel's political landscape was dramatically altered when Netanyahu signed the U.S.-brokered land-for-security deal last month.

More clearly than ever before, the agreement formalized his party's acceptance of territorial compromise as the basis for the peace process with the Palestinians. It also clarified Netanyahu's own position as a leader who is willing to move forward with the peace accords he inherited, if reluctantly, from his Labor Party predecessors.

But in the wake of the accord, Netanyahu has faced a mutiny from his own Cabinet ministers--and he was forced to rely on the Labor Party to get the agreement through parliament.

Several of Netanyahu's ministers, along with prominent members of his conservative Likud Party, stepped forward this week to publicly voice their alarm at the dissension within his government.

They have urged the Israeli leader to strengthen his position, either by bringing the Labor Party into the government, by calling for early elections or by broadening his divided coalition.

As the negotiating continued, Netanyahu canceled a one-day visit to Switzerland and Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon postponed a trip to the United States, where he was scheduled to participate in a conference Monday in Washington aimed at raising funds for the Palestinian Authority.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu tried to bolster the coalition by reaching a tentative agreement with Levy to rejoin the Cabinet that he stormed away from early this year in a bitter disagreement with the prime minister. When he defected, he also yanked his Gesher Party from the ruling coalition.

The move to recruit Levy was widely viewed here as testament to Netanyahu's ability to fend off yet another crisis through skillful political maneuvering. Levy's moderate politics will also give Netanyahu leverage against right-wing members of the coalition who oppose the peace agreement.

However, it is unclear whether the return of Levy and his party will provide more than short-term relief.

Only Tuesday, Yoel Marcus, a leading commentator in the leftist Haaretz newspaper, had pronounced Netanyahu's government "clinically dead," surviving thanks only to the temporary support of the left-of-center Labor and other opposition parties to allow the accord with the Palestinians to get off the ground.

"Once again, Netanyahu has proved that he is a very able politician in a very tough situation," Avraham Diskin, a leading political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said Wednesday. "This will provide momentum to keep the government together, at least in the short term, and allow it to proceed with the peace process."

Levy told Israel Radio that he has not yet decided which ministerial post he will assume, and the speculation was that he will serve as finance or national infrastructure minister.

Some analysts predicted that a "national unity" government, incorporating opposition figures, could still be in the offing. Levy's party holds only five seats in parliament, and one of those is occupied by a member who voted against the recent peace agreement and has said he will not follow his party in rejoining the coalition.

Levy, a longtime rival of Netanyahu, also has a complicated personal relationship with the prime minister. No one was willing to predict Wednesday how long their latest reconciliation might last.

Levy's earlier exit from the government followed many angry, public disputes with Netanyahu and threats to resign.

Still, with four additional seats in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset, Netanyahu's majority will now be boosted to 65 votes--at least on paper--and he appears likely to be able to proceed with implementation of the peace agreement and, probably, passage of the national budget next month.

"This gives him a viable majority and reduces his dependence on the far right of his coalition," said Barry Rubin, senior resident scholar at the Begin and Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv's Bar Ilan University.

The Levy move came amid a flurry of political activity and uncertainty in the wake of Netanyahu's decision last month to sign the accord. Under terms of the agreement, Israel promised to transfer an additional 13% of West Bank land to the Palestinians in three stages in return for concrete security steps. The first withdrawal was carried out Friday.

Ceding portions of the West Bank to the Palestinians shattered his party's mantle as defender of the dream of a Greater Israel.

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