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NEWS ANALYSIS Political turmoil in Israel suggests a long winter ahead

JERUSALEM, Oct. 28 (JTA) — Predictions of “a long, hot winter” are fairly standard in Israel when the Knesset reconvenes after its prolonged summer and High Holiday recess. But this week, the mudslinging and raucous debate were hotter than usual, setting the tone for the legislative session. But it was not only the stormy atmosphere in the Knesset chamber — including incessant heckling and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak’s call for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “leave us, resign, go your way” — that suggested a rocky road ahead. The substance of Netanyahu’s address, the reactions it elicited here and in Washington, a looming conflict within the coalition over the state budget, and a crisis with the Reform and Conservative movements in America — all these gave credence to the sound and fury of Monday’s opening parliamentary proceedings. Despite the looming political strife, no one should write Netanyahu out of power yet — not by any means. While there are many in Israel, including President Ezer Weizman, who are speculating about the possible collapse of the present coalition before the end of the year, seasoned commentators — even those profoundly critical of the prime minister’s performance — are wary of predicting his imminent downfall. They note with appreciation his proven staying powers. Through the various crises that have dogged his first 16 months in office, he has confounded his critics and emerged intact. And even though his standing has sagged over the months — and, according to some polls, now lags behind Barak — there can be little doubt that a solid core of his voters in the 1996 election remain essentially satisfied with his premiership. His supporters are pleased that he has not handed back any more land to the Palestinians — not since the January signing of the Hebron agreement, which he could not avoid concluding. But just to make sure he remembers where his support comes from, the so-called Greater Israel Lobby, a group of 17 hard-line Knesset members, urged Netanyahu this week not to agree to the “timeout” on settlement building urged by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The legislators warned that if he wavered, they would refuse to support him in the vital budget debates and votes. The Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, went one step further, warning that any weakening on the part of the government would lead them to break ground immediately for a new settlement. In his Knesset speech Monday, the prime minister staunchly maintained that he does not intend to waver on the settlements issue. His policy speech showered attacks on Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat for slacking off in the battle against terrorism. Netanyahu also made openly disparaging comments about the Oslo accords and the interim agreements on which they are based. With his pledge that there would be no halt in settlement construction, Netanyahu seemed to leave little room for the talks that had been scheduled for this week in Washington. Albright had hoped to meet by Friday with Foreign Minister David Levy and Arafat deputy Mahmoud Abbas to advance the peace process. But those talks appeared destined for a postponement, after Levy, more moderate than Netanyahu and increasingly restless in his semi-neutralized position vis-a-vis foreign policy, demanded a precise mandate for negotiation before setting out for the U.S. capital. The delay in Levy’s trip provoked a critical reaction from U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin, who said Monday that Washington “would like the internal deliberations to conclude” so that the talks can proceed “as soon as possible”— an unusual jab at Israel’s policy-making processes. In fact, Levy and his Gesher faction are restless about more than the stalled peace process. The foreign minister and his mostly Sephardi supporters view the government’s economic policy with severe misgivings and are seriously contemplating provoking a coalition crisis in the upcoming budget debates. The Netanyahu government was expected to present the Knesset with a more than $58 billion 1998 budget that contains massive cuts to social programs. The cuts will affect Israel’s poor, who form a large part of Netanyahu’s — and Levy’s — supporters. Netanyahu’s government could fall if the budget is not passed by the end of the year, and Netanyahu cannot feel safe until then. Traditionally, budget debates are the small parties’ field day, with the Orthodox, immigrants and other special interest groups pressing their specific demands and threatening to withhold their support unless these demands are met. In Levy’s case — given his grievances about what he sees as Netanyahu’s persistent ignoring of him in key policy deliberations — the budget debates could provide the last straw that takes Gesher out of its alliance with Likud. If Gesher does bolt the coalition over social issues, the Orthodox Shas Party, which also draws support from poorer Israelis, might also bolt, which would mean the end of Netanyahu’s coalition. Along with the budget and foreign policy issues, Netanyahu also faces a gathering storm over religious pluralism issues. Netanyahu himself added a new side-drama to the issue with remarks he made last week to an elderly rabbi. Those remarks — that left-wingers “have forgotten what it means to be Jewish” — were picked up by an open microphone, and have provoked a political storm that Labor is striving to exploit to the fullest. At the opening of Monday’s Knesset session, opposition members waved placards reading “Bibi Is Dividing the Country” and “I Am a Proud Jew.” Knesset ushers pulled the placards down on the orders of Speaker Dan Tichon, and Netanyahu later offered an apology “for the distorted interpretation of my remarks.” This drama served an appropriate prelude for the more ominous rift with non-Orthodox Jews. A crisis was averted Tuesday when non-Orthodox leaders agreed to withdraw petitions from the High Court of Justice seeking official recognition of their conversions and their right to sit on local religious councils. In return, the Orthodox parties agreed to postpone legislative action on two bills dealing with the same issues. As a result of their actions, a committee headed by Finance Minister Ya’acov Ne’eman will have three more months to try to forge a compromise among the Orthodox and non-Orthodox movements. Already, they have missed several deadlines. While the situation has been defused, the crisis is far from over and has already sparked a serious strain between Netanyahu’s government and large sections of American Jewry. And it is happening just when his foreign policy differences with the Clinton administration seem to be coming to a head. It is sure to be a long winter.

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