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NEWS ANALYSIS Israel’s prime minister fights erosion of coalition support

JERUSALEM, June 24 (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling a crisis of confidence, and his main opponents are sitting around his Cabinet table. The failure of Netanyahu and his longtime friend Natan Sharansky to meet this week to sign an agreement resolving their political differences spoke volumes about the crisis. They left it to their lieutenants: Likud Knesset member Michael Eitan, the coalition chairman, and Knesset member Roman Bronfman, the faction chairman of Sharansky”s Yisrael Ba”Aliyah Party. Netanyahu and Sharansky”s failure confirmed that their friendship has evaporated, perhaps permanently, and all that is left are political interests. As a result, the prime minister was left more isolated than ever at the head of his discordant Cabinet. That isolation was evident this week when Foreign Minister David Levy and eight other coalition members demonstratively walked out of the Knesset before a critical no-confidence vote. While Netanyahu survived the vote, such high-profile defections from the coalition ranks are a serious blow to the government”s prestige, and, ultimately, to its staying power. Netanyahu”s image, beyond any specific issue, has now become the focus of Israeli political debate. “It is a crisis of confidence,”” Sharansky, the minister of trade and industry, declared earlier this week. “Confidence in the prime minister.”” The two men”s personal relationship goes back to the dark days of Sharansky”s incarceration in the Soviet gulag, and his wife Avital”s dogged efforts to secure his release. Netanyahu, a young Israeli diplomat in the United States, was one of her staunchest allies. Now, as the two parties quarreled over budgets for immigrant absorption activities and diplomatic appointments in the former Soviet Union, Sharansky repeatedly made it clear that the real issue for him was Netanyahu”s personality. While Yisrael Ba”Aliyah”s immediate grievances were assuaged in the agreement signed Monday, the party”s trust in the prime minister, and especially Sharansky”s own faith in him, have not been restored.
The premier”s successful engineering last week of Finance Minister Dan Meridor”s resignation exacerbated the crisis surrounding his leadership and led the opposition to introduce the no-confidence motion. Joining Meridor in proclaiming that they no longer had confidence in Netanyahu were former Likud premier Yitzhak Shamir, Ze”ev “Benny”” Begin, who resigned from the Cabinet in January, Uzi Landau, the Likud chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and David Magen, the recently resigned deputy finance minister. Shamir told television viewers Monday night, on the eve of a no-confidence vote in the Knesset, that he was actively seeking an alternative candidate for Likud leader who could run for the premiership in the next elections. Netanyahu”s close aides appeared to have gotten the message. Responding to the opposition”s no-confidence motions Tuesday, Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi dwelt on the image of Labor leader Ehud Barak. Despite vociferous jeers from the opposition, and evident discomfort within his own Likud ranks, Hanegbi read sections of an Israeli newspaper account of Barak”s alleged hasty withdrawal from the scene of a military training accident in 1990, when, as chief of staff, he witnessed the deaths of five members of a crack army unit. “You will not dictate to me what reply to make to the House,”” Hanegbi told the furious Labor Knesset members. “We listened to your leader”s criticism of the prime minister. Now learn to listen to our opinion of your leader.”” As a parliamentary gimmick, Hanegbi”s speech succeeded in shifting the immediate spotlight from the coalition”s crumbling confidence in the premier. While Netanyahu survived the no-confidence vote because the opposition could not muster the 61 votes needed to bring down the government — a 55-50 vote defeated the motion — nine coalition members displayed their displeasure with the prime minister”s governance by not voting. Levy was joined by the other four members of his Gesher faction, and Likud Knesset members Meridor, Begin, Landau and David Re”em in not voting. A determined campaign by Begin and Meridor could gradually erode Netanyahu”s popularity with the Likud rank-and-file. Both Yisrael Ba”Aliyah and the Orthodox Shas Party were carefully surveying public opinion within their own clearly defined constituencies to determine whether they might benefit from early elections. Potentially more ominous for Netanyahu, two of his three most senior ministers were reported to be deeply concerned over the premier”s handling of affairs of state. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Foreign Minister David Levy both declined to comment on a Ma”ariv report that they met alone Saturday night to review the peace process and security issues. “Catastrophe ahead”” was one of the phrases reportedly employed by these two senior ministers. Presumably they were referring to a series of recent intelligence assessments predicting massive Palestinian violence in the territories if the peace process remains deadlocked. Some of these assessments forecast the downfall of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat as a result of new violence and extremism among the Palestinians. Levy and Mordechai, considered cautious and moderate in Washington and in European capitals, are said to be disturbed by Ariel Sharon”s imminent advent to the ranks of senior ministers. Sharon, who was due to assume the finance portfolio, still speaks of Arafat as a “war criminal”” who should be arrested and tried, not a negotiating partner. As finance minister, Sharon says he would insist on a role in top-level defense and foreign policy decision-making. Levy and Mordechai are said to feel that any efforts to resume the stalled peace process would become harder with Sharon”s influence elevated. Ironically, a year ago, Netanyahu did all he could to keep Sharon out of his coalition, and it was Levy who eventually forced him to bring the Likud hard-liner in as minister for national infrastructure, a post created for Sharon. But after a year of presiding over Israel”s waning position on the international stage, Levy is now anxious that the government be seen as moving forward in the peace process. Meanwhile, Mordechai is under constant pressure from career military officers to head off what many of them see as a needless confrontation with the Palestinian masses. The defense minister, whose growing popularity, confirmed in public opinion polls, is said to rankle the beleaguered prime minister, could be the next target of Netanyahu”s axe. Other coalition members, however, may welcome Sharon”s elevated status. Yisrael Ba”Aliyah ministers Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein are regarded as hard-liners on the Palestinian issue and, therefore, would not balk at Sharon”s push for a tougher approach on peace process issues. But, as the recent actions by Shamir and Begin have shown, when confidence in the leader breaks down, even ideological affinity is no guarantee of long-term support.

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