The only clear winners in this week’s round of on-the-brink politics in Israel were the Knesset’s two Arab parties.
Staring down a double disaster in the wake of a decision to expropriate Arab- owned land in eastern Jerusalem, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin managed to save both his government and the Middle East peace process.
Beyond the immediate relief, however, Rabin and his Cabinet ministers emerged weakened by the whole affair.
Likud, the main opposition party, also came out of the fray smarting, as its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, faced recriminations from longtime rivals over his handling of the drama.
For nearly a month, Israel’s plans to confiscate some 140 acres of mostly Arab- owned land to construct Jewish housing had drawn the ire of the Arab world as well as a number of Western countries.
Even the United States offered mild criticism of the confiscation plans, with officials saying they could not see how it would help further the regional peace process.
But when the issue was brought to the U.N. Security Council last week, the United States used its first veto in five years to block a resolution calling on Israel Israel to rescind its plans.
Not to be outmaneuvered, Arab leaders planned a summit of the Arab League for this weekend in Morocco, where they were planning to discuss putting the entire peace process on hold.
Amid the growing clamor of international criticism, however, it remained for two predominantly Arab parties in the Knesset to undo the confiscation plans.
On Monday, the five Knesset members of the Hadash Party and the Arab Democratic Party, introduced non-confidence motions in the Knesset.
The two parties, which are closely linked to Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, found an unlikely ally in Likud.
Although supportive of the confiscation plans in principle, Likud saw the motions as a welcome opportunity to bring down the Rabin government.
After a dramatic day’ of behind-the-scenes jockeying between the Knesset factions Monday, Rabin and his ministers decided to out-flank their opponents.
The Cabinet put the confiscation decision on indefinite hold and set up a Cabinet committee — that well-tried instrument for burying awkward mistakes – - to reconsider the confiscation plans.
The Rabin government’s sharp reversal tactic was masterminded by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who submitted it to a specially convened Cabinet meeting, barely two hours before the crucial non-confidence votes were to have been taken.
Bruised by the international outcry over the issue, the Cabinet ministers jumped at the opportunity to reverse the original decision. And the results of the minister’s turnabout were immediate : – In the Knesset, the Hadash Party withdrew its non-confidence motion. – The alliance between the Arab parties and Likud collapsed; a second motion, submitted by the Arab Democratic Party, was defeated by a huge majority. – In Cairo, the Egyptian government announced that the Arab League summit would be canceled. And on Tuesday, in an effort to clear up tensions between the two countries, Egyptian presidential adviser Osama Al- Baz flew to Israel to meet with Israeli leaders. – Relations between Israel and Jordan, which were ominously deteriorating because of the land confiscation plans, improved instantly as talks on various practical aspects of the peace treaty between the two countries surged forward.
Despite the immediate successes, however, Rabin’s government was weakened by the whole affair. And the question remains how the prime minister’s actions will play with the Israeli public.
“How Rabin folded” was the red-letter headline in Israel’s largest circulation daily, yediot Achronot, on Tuesday.
Indeed, some political pundits are predicting that even though it managed to weather this storm, the Rabin government’s days are numbered and it may not be able to complete its term. Elections are scheduled for November 1996.
Rabin also worried how his actions would play with the Clinton administration, which backed Israel all the way to the United Nations only to find that its closest ally would pull a surprising flip-flop.
“How am I going to look Clinton in the eye?” the prime minister was heard remarking.
While the United States had “taken the heat” for Israel in the Security Council last week, the Israeli government itself — or so it seemed — had folded under pressure from its domestic opposition.
But the Likud opposition emerged from the drama in little better shape, with some questioning Netanyahu’s marriage of convenience with the two Arab- dominated parties.
Labor and Likud, meanwhile, launched into a bitter verbal battle over which of them was to blame for the halting of the government’s building plans in Jerusalem.
Peres, speaking from the Knesset podium Monday, termed what had happened “a scandal,” insisting that the Likud was to blame.
“We didn’t cave in to the Arab parties,” he shouted. “We caved in to the Likud.”
Peres said the government had now “torn the mask off” the hypocrisy of the Likud’s longstanding criticism of the so-called “blocking bloc” — the Knesset majority that comprises both coalition parties, Labor and Meretz, and the two pro-PLO Arab parties.
Despite Peres’ vehemence, political sources said the government could have squeaked by with a victory in Monday’s vote.
According to these sources, Labor’s leaders were well aware of the numbers, but Rabin and Peres deliberately hyped the parliamentary crisis in order to climb down from the controversial land decision that had threatened the entire peace process.
Going on the attack on behalf of Likud, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert said he was “ashamed of this government,” which he described as “a government of cowards.”
In their public pronouncements, Olmert and his colleagues insisted that Rabin had surrendered to the PLO and its allies within the Knesset.
But within Likud, recriminations flew between Netanyahu and other party figures over the wisdom of Netanyahu’s parliamentary tactics.
Men such as Moshe Nissim, David Levy and Ariel Sharon were to be heard complaining Tuesday that the outcome — Rabin’s revocation of the confiscation plans — could and should have been foreseen.
Netanyahu’s aides, in turn, accused his party critics of attacking him with the wisdom of hindsight. They suggested that some of these attacks were an effort to settle other scores with the party leader.
Meanwhile, the political fallout continues. Likud has introduced a new no- confidence motion — this one over the government’s decision to freeze the Jerusalem land confiscations.
The debate is scheduled for Monday, but the government has little to fear since the two Arab parties this time can be counted on to line up behind the government and once again ensure the coalition a safe majority.
For their part, the two Arab parties are celebrating their success.
This week’s events represent a political high point for them. Now the question will be whether the numerous squabbling factions that make up political opinion among Israel’s 800,000 Arab voters can get their act together before the next election.
If they can agree on a single list, embracing both nationalist and religious sentiment, Arab voters could emerge from that election wielding more parliamentary strength than ever.