Netanyahu Faces Likud Ire, Defends Meeting with Arafat

A day after meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered sharp advice for critics within his own party.

The premier warned his Likud colleagues Thursday night that those who did not accept his peace policy should not have joined his government and need not stay in it now.

But Netanyahu’s strong words to the Likud’s Central Committee meeting in Tel Aviv failed to deter such hard-liners as Science Minister Ze’ev “Benny” Begin and Uzi Landau, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, from speaking out harshly against the premier’s meeting with Arafat.

National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon also delivered a speech critical of government policy, though he did not refer specifically to that controversial meeting.

Political commentators said that while Netanyahu was plainly in trouble with his party’s right wing, his position as premier and party leader was not threatened.

Nevertheless, with Begin and Sharon teaming up against him despite their own bitter personal differences, and with the hard-line position plainly enjoying broad support among party activists, these observers predicted that Netanyahu would face hard times with his Cabinet.

Begin recounted how Netanyahu had told him categorically, just four hours before the meeting with Arafat, that anyone opposed to the premier’s policies had no place in his Cabinet.

“Don’t, don’t,” Begin supporters shouted from the floor, fearing he was about to announce his resignation.

“Let me speak, don’t worry,” he replied, and then threw down a challenge to the prime minister.

“I wasn’t born in government,” Begin said. “I wish to serve, to the best of my conscience, in the interests of our land, our people and the cities of our God.”

Political commentators said this meant that Begin would not quit the Cabinet voluntarily, despite Netanyahu’s suggestion.

Begin, in effect, was challenging Netanyahu to fire him if he dared.

Netanyahu looked grim as Landau, Sharon and then Begin accused him of acting contrary to party policy, of buckling to Palestinian and overseas pressures, and of leading the coalition to a risky and dangerous future.

Begin said the government’s official policy guidelines spoke of negotiating with the Palestinian Authority only on condition that it fulfilled its commitments under prior agreements.

As an example, he cited what he viewed as the Palestinian leadership’s failure to amend the Palestinian covenant.

“They have not done so, and in my assessment, they will not do so,” Begin said.

The Palestine National Council held a meeting in April during which, it said, it had rescinded the anti-Israel clauses in its covenant. But exactly what the PNC decided at that session has been a matter of sharp debate ever since.

Earlier in the session, Netanyahu gave a spirited defense of his decision to meet Arafat — and also of his 80 days in power that preceded it.

He said Israel’s security situation had been stabilized, that the Palestinian Authority had been forced to close three offices operating in Jerusalem and that the Palestinians had been told “in no uncertain terms” that the Netanyahu government intended to conduct very different policies from its predecessor in regard to settlements and to Israel’s rights in the Land of Israel.

Once his government achieved its initial demands from the Palestinian Authority, said Netanyahu, the meeting with Arafat could take place and the commitment to re-embark on formal negotiations could be made.

He added that these same points had been made to Arafat when they met Wednesday.

Meeting the man he had long labeled a terrorist had not been easy, Netanyahu said.

“But leaders are elected not for the easy times, but for the hard times.”

The meeting with Arafat accorded entirely with statements he made both before and after Israel’s elections, Netanyahu said, adding, “Anyone who comes now with complaints should not have joined the coalition in the first place.”

This declaration visibly shook even the premier’s supporters among the ministers arranged on the dais.

Netanyahu continued with a vigorous restatement of his belief that a government, “like an army,” must have one commander who sets out policy.

He reiterated his determined opposition to Palestinian statehood, and said most Israelis — even those who ostensibly accept Palestinian self-determination – - agree with this basic position.

His goal in the permanent-status negotiations, he said, was a continued Palestinian autonomy.

Ending on a conciliatory note, Netanyahu pleaded with the Central Committee delegates for their support of his policies.

Sharon, in his speech, denied that the Palestinian offices in Jerusalem had indeed been closed down.

In fact, he said, they had merely been moved to Orient House, the Palestinians de facto headquarters in eastern Jerusalem, where they continued to operate.

Landau blasted the new electoral system that went into effect this year and that, he said, had led to the Likud’s decimation.

He mourned the fact that the party which 14 years ago had 48 Knesset members now had only 22.

“We don’t have a party with a leader,” Landau said, “but rather a man who owns a party.”

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