News Analysis; Likud Opposition Deeply Divided About How to Fight Peace Policy

Gaza and Jericho have entered a brave new political reality, and leaders of Israel’s opposition Likud party are bitterly divided about how to cope with it.

Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu and others have declared that they believe the Palestine Liberation Organization to have violated its accord with Israel and that they therefore do not feel bound to uphold it.

But beyond this pledge to ignore the agreement implemented this month, those who would like to lead Israel in place of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin have given no indication of how they would deal with the new reality.

This weakness is reflected in a poll conducted last week and published Friday by the Israeli mass-circulation daily Yediot Achronot.

The survey showed Israelis preferring Labor’s Rabin over Likud’s Netanyahu by 50 to 38, when asked to choose who was best suited to lead the country.

In fact, Netanyahu has come under fierce criticism from within his party, with critics charging that instead of leading the opposition, he is himself led by extremist circles, particularly Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Coming from old warhorse Ariel Sharon, such criticisms can be seen as merely the latest opportunistic sniping. Sharon, who has never embraced Netanyahu’s victory in a party primary that Sharon chose not to enter, called publicly last week for a “renewed leadership” at the head of the anti-government alliance.

The Yediot Achronot survey showed that Sharon is not the only one who would like to see Rabin out and someone other than Netanyahu in.

Pitted against a broader array of potential leaders, Netanyahu drew only 19 percent. Sharon was supported by 12 percent, and 11 percent preferred Rafael Eitan, head of the right-wing Tsomet party.

(By contrast, Rabin dominated contenders on the left, receiving 36 percent backing. That far exceeded the 7 and 9 percent received respectively by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Haim Ramon, incoming secretary-general of the Histadrut labor federation.)

INITIATIVE CAME FROM SETTLERS

The rebellion against Netanyahu from members of the Likud leadership who had previously rallied behind him was evident earlier this month when the Knesset debated the Gaza-Jericho implementation agreement signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in Cairo.

Leading Likud figures, including former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, David Levy, Ze’ev (Benny) Begin and Dan Meridor, balked volubly at Netanyahu’s decision that Likud and the other opposition parties should walk out of the Knesset when the time came for the vote on the accord.

In the end, these rebels were overruled, and all the opposition benches did indeed empty, in a rare display of unparliamentary behavior in the legislature. Shamir and Meridor went home early in demonstrative disgust.

Netanyahu’s critics saw the move as an indication of how the party chairman was following the extremist opposition, rather than leading the sort of centrist opposition that might recapture the small but crucial swing voters who decide the outcome of Israeli elections.

The initiative to boycott the Knesset vote came in a letter to opposition Knesset members from Uri Ariel, chairman of a leading settlers group, the Judea and Samaria Council, and was strongly advocated by National Religious Party hard-liner Hanan Porat.

Shamir, Levy, Meridor and others opposed the idea, but Netanyahu decided ultimately to adopt it and demand party uniformity on it.

Sharon charged that Likud, though the largest political force on the right, was not in fact leading the battle against the government’s peace policy.

The activists leading the fight, he said, come from outside Likud’s ranks, and the party has had little success getting its members out onto the streets to protest the dangers and failures of the peace process.

Sharon said Likud needs a new, collective leadership, and he declared himself ready to be part of it.

While such talk is idle — the Likud constitution makes a mid-term leadership election difficult to instigate — the former general’s timing reflects Netanyahu’s current weakness.

A MISSED OPPORTUNITY

Paradoxically, this weakness has been brought on less by the army withdrawal from Gaza than by the Labor Party’s crushing defeat in this month’s Histadrut elections at the hands of Labor renegade Haim Ramon.

Likud stalwarts are now ruefully reminding their leader that their party, too, had a potential election-winner — in the form of popular Knesset member Meir Shetreet.

Opinion polls taken earlier this year showed Shetreet, a former treasurer of the Jewish Agency for Israel, beating the Labor incumbent as Histadrut secretary-general, Haim Haberfeld.

Moreover, political insiders said at the time that if Shetreet ran, Haim Ramon might forgo his intention of doing so.

With Shetreet, the Likud could have captured the powerful Histadrut machine — for the first time ever.

But Netanyahu refused to reopen the race for a Likud Histadrut candidate, upholding the right of longtime Histadrut opposition leader Yaakov Shamai to run, for a third time, for the secretary-generalship.

As expected, Shamai, an unpopular Knesset member, was trounced. He not only picked up none of Labor’s losses; his own share of the vote was sliced from 28 percent to 16. (Ramon won with 46 percent; Labor got 34 percent.)

Shetreet, a relative dove on the peace issue, refuses to take issue publicly with Netanyahu over the Histadrut missed opportunity.

Some observers say Netanyahu did not back him because of a pending police inquiry into his use of credit cards while at the Jewish Agency.

As to the criticism of Netanyahu over the peace issue, however, Shetreet put his oar in last week: The masses are not turning out for Likud, Shetreet suggested, because they support the peace that Netanyahu has been railing against.

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