News Analysis: Eruption of the Peace Process Could Shift Political Landscape

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ponders how to cope with the war-ravaged peace process, Israel’s political community is assessing the possible domestic repercussions of this week’s bloodshed in the territories.

Speculation has heightened over the prospects of Netanyahu being forced to invite the opposition Labor Party into a broad coalition.

That speculation intensified in the wake of intense clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. The clashes, triggered by Israel’s opening Monday of a new entrance to an ancient tunnel alongside the Temple Mount, spread throughout the West Bank and approached settlements in the Gaza Strip.

The fighting, which included armed battles between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian police, resulted in the deaths of at least 11 Israelis and at least 42 Palestinians by Thursday. The total wounded numbered in the hundreds.

The possibility of a political shift focused on the fervently Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party, whose 10 Knesset seats form a vital element in Netanyahu’s rightist-religious coalition.

While constitutionally, Netanyahu would continue in office even if he loses his majority in the Knesset, in practical terms he would find it impossible to government for long if Shas refused to support him on votes.

Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is known to be increasingly uneasy with the deterioration of the Israeli-Arab peace process during the Netanyahu government’s first 100 days in office, which was marked on Thursday.

Labor leader Shimon Peres is due to pay a Sukkot visit to Yosef on Sunday, with Shas’ parliamentary leader, Knesset member Aryeh Deri, likely to attend.

Political pundits say that could mark the beginning of a move to shake up the political constellation after this week’s disastrous developments in the territories.

These pundits say Natan Sharansky’s party, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah, could be another catalyst in a process designed to broaden — and moderate — the current government.

The assumption is that if Netanyahu brings Labor in, elements on the right of Likud, as well as the ultra-hawkish National Religious Party, might well secede from the coalition.

Such a reshuffle would be predicated, of course, on a prior decision by Netanyahu and his key ministers to move ahead expeditiously with the redeployment of Israeli forces from Hebron.

The prime minister heard in no uncertain terms from Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak on Thursday morning, in a telephone conversation from Europe, that only a speedy implementation of the redeployment accord in Hebron could bring about a return to quiet in the territories.

There are no indications, however, that Netanyahu, who arrived back Thursday night from a truncated trip to Europe, is contemplating softening his government’s positions in the wake of this week’s violence.

Until now, he has insisted on renegotiating the security provisions of the Hebron accord with the Palestinian Authority.

And now, with elements in the Palestinian police having proven not only unreliable but actually hostile — and in many cases deadly — the prime minister would doubtless face redoubled pressure from his right if he moved to pull the Israel Defense Force out of most of Hebron, leaving the Jewish settlers there less protected than they are now.

Beyond the political machinations, there is growing concern across a wide swath of the political spectrum that Netanyahu, 46 years old and without previous Cabinet experience, is proving ill-equipped to handle the job of prime minister.

Thus, for instance, the premier has been subject to implied — but unequivocal — criticism from voices within his own camp over his decision to open the new entrance to the ancient tunnel in the Old City.

Yitzhak Mordechai, the minister of defense, made it clear Thursday that he was not comfortable with the decision-making process in that instance.

Ronnie Milo, mayor of Tel Aviv and another important voice in the Likud, said he had believed sincerely that when the new prime minister was elected, he was committed to the peace process.

He still thought so, Milo said, but he would have wished to see “much more resolute and unequivocal action during the first 100 days,” especially the implementation of the Hebron accord.

On the Labor side of the Knesset, doubts regarding Netanyahu’s fitness for the premiership were being voiced openly. “He lacks the abilities and he lacks the good judgment,” said Uzi Baram at a Labor leadership meeting Thursday. Labor officials, in a deliberately provocative gambit, issued a statement Thursday urging Mordechai “to show national responsibility and take over the reins of power.”

Labor Party figures are divided over the coalition government scenario, with some urging Peres to join if asked and others warning him to stay out. The latter camp fears that Peres would be forced to share in the blame for the blunders already made by the Netanyahu camp.

One key figure not yet heard from during the past three days of escalating disturbances is Ariel Sharon, the hard-line minister of infrastructure whose uncomplimentary assessment of Netanyahu’s leadership qualities is well-known.

Sharon, despite his tough views on Arafat and the peace accords with the Palestinians, is believed to be anxious to bring Peres and other Laborites into the government.

Netanyahu’s supporters, meanwhile, were hoping Thursday night that the premier’s return to the country to take direct control of the crisis would provide a high-profile opportunity for him to demonstrate national leadership and score well in public opinion.

Netanyahu’s close Cabinet ally, Acting Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, rebuffed criticism of Netanyahu’s decision on the tunnel in Jerusalem.

Instead, he blamed the killings on the previous Labor government.

“We warned you and warned you, do not give them guns,” Hanegbi said. “Now those guns have been turned against our people.”

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