NEWS ANALYSIS Netanyahu endures as premier while facing series of crises

JERUSALEM, June 2 (JTA) — One year after taking office as Israel”s youngest and most politically inexperienced prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has two things going for him: He is still in power and the worst of his troubles may be over. The past year has not gone well for Netanyahu or for the country. Indeed, in the view of his critics and political foes, his first year in office has been a disaster for the Jewish state on a number of fronts. Even his supporters — and in fact Netanyahu himself — do not try to contend that the year has been a resounding success. First and foremost, the peace process is now in deep crisis. That process was first weakened by a series of Hamas terrorist attacks in February and March 1996 that former Prime Minister Shimon Peres still blames for his own downfall and Netanyahu”s victory in the May 1996 election. Now, with their negotiations stalled since mid-March, Israel and the Palestinians are trading accusations of broken commitments and violated understandings. Netanyahu says it is still taking time for the Palestinians, the wider Arab world and the international community as a whole to come to terms with the fact that Israel has a new government. His coalition, while committed to pursuing the peace process, is opposed to a Palestinian state and to the ceding of large swaths of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. It is also committed to holding the Palestinians accountable to the commitments they made in their accords with Israel, a sharp change from what Netanyahu has described as the all-too-forgiving attitude of the previous Labor government. But these stances could have a stiff price. In off-the-record conversations, senior civilian and military officials are discussing — for the first time in four years — the chances of a new war in the region. On the economic front, the waning of peace prospects has contributed to a slowdown in Israel”s economic boom because potential investors have shied away, fearful of new regional violence. The Netanyahu government has made minor cuts in its budget. But economic experts predict a recession, albeit a mild one, for the coming year or two. Internally, social tensions, especially secular-Orthodox frictions, are running high. A prolonged confrontation over Bar Ilan Street, a major thoroughfare in Jerusalem that fervently Orthodox Jews want closed on the Sabbath, may be nearing resolution with the implementation of a government scheme to shut the road during prayer times. But the episode is seen by both Orthodox and secular groups as a reflection of growing Orthodox assertiveness. Another source of friction stems from the demand of Netanyahu”s Orthodox coalition partners that he support legislation to delegitimize non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Passage of the conversion legislation, which was a condition of the religious parties when they joined the government coalition a year ago, threatens to drive a wedge between the Jewish state and Diaspora Jews. Netanyahu”s supporters blame the bad times on external factors, including a begrudging and prejudiced political opposition. They concede that the premier”s lack of previous Cabinet experience, and his relative inexperience in party leadership, led him to make decisions that more mature reflection might have avoided. The decision to open a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel near Jerusalem”s Temple Mount — which led to three days of bloody Israeli-Palestinian violence last September — is cited as one salient example of hasty decision-making. But they maintain that Netanyahu, whose gifts of intelligence are not disputed even by his detractors, is learning all the time. After a year in office, they say, he is finally beginning to look and act like the man in charge. But behind his back, key political figures within his own Cabinet and party are saying, albeit not for the record, that they would prefer to replace him. But that would not be easy. Israel”s new electoral system has been without doubt Netanyahu”s staunchest ally during this turbulent year. He clearly knew what he was doing when he defied his party”s orders and voted with the Labor Party in favor of the law establishing the direct election of the prime minister, which went into effect last year. The new system was devised in order to strengthen the premier and weaken the bargaining power of the small parties. But it has patently failed in its second goal: The power of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, for example, a key component of Netanyahu”s coalition, is still pivotal. But the system has succeeded in ensconcing the directly elected prime minister in office. To remove Netanyahu, a majority of the 120-member Knesset would need to support a motion of no-confidence, but this would automatically trigger the parliamentarians” own resignations and the holding of new elections both for prime minister and for the Knesset, a move many in the governing coalition would not relish. Moves are afoot in the Knesset to reform the election law, with support from members across the political spectrum. Increasingly, as his first year in office wore on, it became clear that for all his fumbling, Netanyahu has an overarching strategy that embraces not only the peace process — where he will fight for every inch of land — but also domestic issues. He sees himself as a “new broom,”” determined to sweep away the entrenched “elites,”” as he calls them, which for decades have held the top positions in the various spheres of public life. This is how Netanyahu”s supporters depict his January appointment of Likud activist Roni Bar-On as attorney-general. The short-lived appointment triggered an inquiry of influence- peddling that ended with a police recommendation that Netanyahu be prosecuted, a stance later reversed by the attorney general. But the Bar-On affair is not yet over. The question of indicting the premier is now under review by the High Court of Justice. Despite the allegations of corruption that the Bar-On appointment triggered, Netanyahu”s supporters say he remains determined to bring new, “non-establishment”” blood into the judiciary, the army and universities. Netanyahu”s efforts on this front have met with many rebuffs and few successes. Not all Likud voters are happy with it, and not all Likud ministers subscribe to it. But it has won Netanyahu powerful and vociferous support from one increasingly important segment of Israeli political life: the Sephardi supporters of Shas. There, resentment over longstanding social grievances has welled up into an unprecedented surge of hostility against all the Ashkenazi “bastions of privilege,”” as many Shas supporters see the institutions of government and culture. The anti-establishment stance of Shas and of Netanyahu is still in its infancy. Some Israeli scholars believe this trend contains the dangerous seeds of anarchy. Others are more benign, regarding it as a latter-day passing populist fad. Its effect on Israel”s image, both abroad and among its own citizens, is still unclear. The year ahead will determine whether this trend will
continue.

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