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PEACE: THE NEXT STEP

Agreement Forces Netanyahu to Make Dramatic Political Shift

Government: By pledging to carry out a plan he once campaigned against, Israeli premier takes risk.

October 25, 1998|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu has ceded territory to Palestinians before: In January 1997, he became the first leader of the Israeli right to sign away biblical lands to the historical enemy.

But his acceptance of a new U.S.-brokered interim agreement marks the Israeli premier's largest step yet away from the hard right-wing politics of no concession. It may be purely pragmatic, it may be temporary; what is clear is that Netanyahu has been forced to move toward a political center from where he is pledging to carry out a land-for-peace plan that he once campaigned against.

As he heads to Israel today after a dramatic nine-day summit and emotional White House signing ceremony, Netanyahu faces a storm of protest from settlers and right-wing politicians threatening his downfall, and tentative support from his traditional opponents on the left.

The prime minister will have to sell his deal to a sharply divided Cabinet, and then to Israel's 120-member Knesset, or parliament, where he holds the slimmest of majorities. Eventually, he may be forced to call new elections.

Most bets are on Netanyahu surviving the turmoil, at least for now, although the shape and composition of the future government are not clear. He will argue that his negotiating skills clinched concrete security measures from the Palestinians while he gave up a lot less than previous governments would have.

"Bibi has crossed the Rubicon and is going forward in the peace process," said Netanyahu's internal security minister, Avigdor Kahalani, using the prime minister's nickname. "He has no other way."

Protest by Jewish settlers, the religious right and other conservatives began even before the Wye agreement was signed. These groups are a vocal minority that helped get Netanyahu elected in 1996, but now they are branding their leader a traitor.

"My friends and I will do everything in order to send this government home," said Rehavam Zeevi, a particularly vocal far-right Knesset member who opposes any concession to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Netanyahu has a bit of body armor in the form of Ariel Sharon, his newly named foreign minister who helped negotiate the Wye agreement. Sharon is a well-established hawk who enjoys credibility among many on the right. Like Netanyahu, Sharon in the past has opposed yielding territory to the Palestinians, but on Saturday he was quoted on Israeli radio as supporting the new deal.

Right-wing Knesset members are planning a vote of no-confidence as early as Monday, but this too is not likely to bring Netanyahu down. However, there is growing support in some circles, including among some members of Netanyahu's own six-party coalition, of forming a new "national unity" government that would retain Netanyahu as head and incorporate some of the opposition parties whose support he needs to win approval for the peace agreement.

Forming a national unity government, analysts suggest, would be one way of staving off new elections, which right-wing opponents to the peace deal could eventually force. It may also move the national political thrust closer to the center.

Many diplomats and analysts believe that Netanyahu would probably win a new election, especially given the disarray of the opposition Labor Party. But they worry about the prospect of Netanyahu campaigning for reelection at the same time that he is supposed to be implementing the interim agreement: withdrawing Israeli troops from the West Bank, allowing the Palestinians to open an airport, releasing Palestinian prisoners and other potentially unpopular moves.

If Netanyahu decides to again woo the settlers or other members of the religious right, analysts say, he may be tempted to allow Jewish enclaves in the West Bank to quietly expand or to beef up their own security squads--which the Palestinians would undoubtedly view as a provocation.

"Just as he's implementing the new agreement, he may have to get into a countdown for new elections," said Joseph Alpher, an Israeli security affairs specialist based in Jerusalem. "That certainly will affect the way the agreement is carried out by Israel."

Yossi Beilin, a Knesset member from the leftist Labor Party, offered Saturday to refrain from opposing Netanyahu's government during the next three months, the period in which an additional 13% of the West Bank is supposed to be transferred to at least partial Palestinian control under the Wye agreement.

Beilin, a negotiator of the 1993 framework Oslo accords that opened the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, praised the important, if modest, Wye agreement because it helps to relegate the far right to "the margins of Israeli society in terms of political thought."

Still, many in the Middle East, especially among Palestinians, do not trust Netanyahu and doubt that he will fulfill the promises he made at the Wye Plantation.

"Netanyahu is not a person to sign agreements with," said Hasan Khreisheh, a representative in the 88-member Palestinian Legislative Council.

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