News Analysis: Calls to Widen Israeli Coalition Await Outcome of D.c. Summit

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington for an emergency summit gave him a welcome respite from domestic political pressures.

The trip, for whatever it may accomplish, put on hold moves to bring about a broadening of the Netanyahu coalition to include a possible national unity government.

President Clinton called for the summit after last week’s violent clashes in the West Bank and Gaza threatened to derail the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat and Jordan’s King Hussein were also expected to attend.

The Washington summit, which came as a tense quiet settled over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, also effectively froze Israel’s massive military deployment in the West Bank, where sizeable Israeli armored units were encamped around each of the autonomous Palestinian towns.

The Palestinian police, on unequivocal orders from Arafat, were intervening fast and forcefully to prevent any further altercation or friction between Palestinian youths and Israeli troops.

In the violence last week — sparked by Israel’s opening of a new entrance to a tunnel near the Temple Mount — at least 14 Israeli soldiers and more than 50 Palestinians were killed, almost all of them in gun battles.

The domestic political fallout from the crisis was graphically illustrated Sunday, when opposition leader Shimon Peres, and then Netanyahu, met with the spiritual leader of the fervently Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, during visits to his sukkah in Jerusalem.

Peres’ visit had in fact been announced two weeks earlier.

But it took on a dramatic air when it actually took place.

The night before, at a crowded lecture in Jerusalem’s Bukharan Quarter, Yosef called for unity in the nation — which some members of the Labor Party immediately interpreted as a hint at his preference for a national unity government.

The Shas Party’s 10 seats in the Knesset are pivotal for Netanyahu.

While the new electoral system that went into effect this year does not allows a sitting Knesset to vote out a government and appoint a different one, a government that loses its majority would find it hard to stay in power for long.

Without Shas’ support, Netanyahu would lack a parliamentary majority.

The Shas leadership’s discomfort with the events of the past week was apparent not only in Yosef’s sad demeanor, but also in a harsh condemnation by the elderly and widely respected kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie, of the decision to open the tunnel.

He said those who had made this decision were “crazies who want to enrage the whole world against us” and urged that the newly opened entrance to the tunnel be closed again.

In a statement to Channel Two Television Sunday night, Kadourie also called for Hebron to be “divided between the Muslims and the Jews” and for the rest of the Palestinian self-rule accords to be implemented immediately.

But Yosef refused to call specifically for a unity government and instead demanded closer consultation between government and opposition.

At Yosef’s suggestion, Netanyahu briefed Peres on the military and diplomatic situation before departing for Washington.

Peres said after his meeting with Yosef that he was “skeptical” about the prospects of a unity government.

Netanyahu’s aides said the prime minister did not want such a government at this time and that this was the position he had taken during his meeting with Yosef.

In a related move, the Third Way Party, another of the Likud’s coalition partners, called Sunday night for “the creation of dialogue between the government and the opposition.”

The Third Way urged Israel and the Palestinian Authority to move immediately into the permanent status negotiations, which will deal with the status of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and the question of Palestinian statehood.

The talks opened just prior to Israel’s May national elections, but have not been resumed since the new government came into power.

These rumblings from the more moderate elements of the Netanyahu Cabinet dovetailed with muted criticisms within government circles over the decision- marking process that led to the opening of the tunnel entrance.

The defense establishment — from Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, through the Israel Defense Force’s top brass and on to the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency — all have made it known that they were not properly consulted, and certainly not heeded, in the discussions that did take place.

Netanyahu has won some unusual support from more conservative Cabinet members. Minister of Science Ze’ev “Benny” Begin is one hard-liner previously critical of the premier who has strongly backed him during this crisis.

But the mutterings in the defense establishment, widely reported in the media, weakened Netanyahu’s standing.

Their criticism has produced — or in some cases heightened — a sense of doubt in sections of the Israeli public about Netanyahu’s capabilities as prime minister and these, too, were reflected in the media.

But, as the premier and his aides repeatedly noted, much of Israel’s media opposed him in the election, and hardly allowed him the traditional grace period before attacking his policies and performance.

Netanyahu’s aides believe that his standing has not weakened among the more than 50 percent of the population who voted him into office.

To the contrary, they maintain, these Israelis support his tough line and especially his flat refusal to accede to the Clinton administration’s request that the new entrance to the tunnel be closed.

A solidarity rally in Hebron on Monday, attended by thousands, attested to the mood of vindication among conservative voters.

The fact that Palestinian police — an estimated 200 of them, according to Israeli intelligence sources — shot at IDF soldiers during the fighting last week is widely cited among supporters of the government as justifying their original opposition to the self-rule accords.

By the same token, though, opinion among opponents of the government has also hardened as a result of last week’s crisis.

Demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv staged by Peace Now and allied movements have been well-attended, and the groups have flooded the newspapers with paid ads demanding that the government honor Israel’s signed commitments to the Palestinians.

Political observers felt that the premier would successfully allay the criticisms from coalition parties if the Washington summit succeeds and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is indeed put back on track.

Failing that, they said, the situation on the ground could deteriorate so fast as to make further political speculation moot.

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