JERUSALEM (Jul. 2)
Still mired in a politically sticky effort to find a place for Ariel Sharon in his Cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has run into conflict with another Likud hard-liner — Minister of Science Ze’ev “Benny” Begin.
Last Friday, the two men clashed at the weekly Cabinet meeting over diplomatic contacts with the Palestinian Authority.
While Begin has denied rumors that he intends to quit the government, political observers believe that the next altercation between the pragmatic premier and the rigidly right-wing Begin is not far off.
But observers say trouble with his hard-liners could be useful for Netanyahu in his international dealings. It accentuates his own relative moderation in comparison to some of the other figures in his rightist-centrist-religious coalition.
In fact, some observers here believe that Netanyahu actively courted, and quickly trumpeted, the verbal showdown with Begin on the eve of his first visit to Washington as premier that is scheduled for next week.
Begin waited patiently as Netanyahu and his top defense aides briefed the ministers on a meeting between Dore Gold, the premier’s foreign policy adviser, and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat.
Then, suddenly, he launched into a 25-minute diatribe on the need, in his view, for the government to turn its back on the Palestine Liberation Organization – - now the elected leadership of the Palestinian Authority — and, by extension, on the accords Israel signed with the Palestinians during the past three years.
Netanyahu responded angrily. “I don’t have to listen to this,” he was reported as saying. The Cabinet secretary, Danny Naveh, told reporters that the prime minister had “firmly” rebutted Begin’s criticism and had pointed out that Begin knew full well the government’s policy position before he joined it.
That policy, articulated before and after the May 29 election, is to pursue peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Netanyahu has said he will “consider” meeting with Arafat himself “if the national security interest requires it.”
After he confronted Netanyahu, Begin refused to comment publicly while sources close to him said he had known in advance that his sojourn in the Cabinet would be short-lived.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu was continuing to battle with several ministers who have been reluctant to cede portions of their portfolios for a new Ministry of National Infrastructure that would be run by Sharon, the veteran Likud hard- liner who was denied other Cabinet appointments.
The latest recalcitrant, according to Israeli media reports, was Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai of Likud, who has reportedly raised objections to the proposal that he relinquish control of the vast defense industrial complex to Sharon.
National Religious Party member Yitzhak Levy, who is the transportation and energy minister, was balking at giving up parts of his mandate to Sharon.
Nonetheless, both Mordechai and Levy insist that they want to see Sharon take his rightful place at the Cabinet table beside them.
The problems Netanyahu has with Begin and Sharon are not inherently linked.
Nevertheless, there is more than coincidence that ties them together.
If Sharon eventually joins, and Begin does not resign, Netanyahu will find himself facing a powerful and articulate hard-line opposition within the Cabinet.
However, if Sharon does not agree to take the post that is being created for him, and Begin walks out, the prime minister will find himself facing the same potentially awkward opposition criticizing him from outside the Cabinet room.
Still, another scenario for the premier would be to end up with one of them in and the other out. The one on the outside would naturally serve as a focus of disgruntled Likud Party members while the one on the inside would make the atmosphere at the Cabinet meetings tense at best, explosive at worst.
Both Begin and Sharon have the kind of backgrounds and grass-roots support in the party that makes any high-handed treatment of them by the prime minister politically dangerous.
Ironically, Sharon and Begin loathe each other.
They are now involved as adversaries, in a court case over Sharon’s behavior as minister of defense during the 1982 Lebanon War. Sharon has sued the newspaper Ha’aretz for libel for publishing that he misled the then-prime minister, Menachem Begin, over the course of the war.
Begin, who was one of the very few persons to maintain close contact with his father after Menachem Begin’s sudden resignation in 1983 and subsequent retirement into seclusion, has submitted a sworn affidavit backing the newspaper’s version.