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Traveling Israeli premier faces possible mutiny in Likud Party

JERUSALEM, Nov. 18 (JTA) – The crisis in Iraq has brought the leaders of Israel and Jordan together for the first time since a bungled Mossad operation two months ago. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short his visit to the United States this week to meet with Jordan’s King Hussein in London. The hastily arranged meeting Tuesday night capped a whirlwind overseas trip by Netanyahu, who faced the beginnings of a mutiny in his own Likud Party while he was addressing American Jewish leaders in the United States. After the meeting with Hussein, Netanyahu was expected to return home, where some Likud legislators are seeking to oust him as party leader and, perhaps, topple his government. Netanyahu, speaking at a news conference Monday in Los Angeles, said that it was no secret that some people dislike him, but that after he returned to Israel, he would “fix what needs to be fixed.” Netanyahu also said he expected to meet in December with President Clinton, who some observers believed snubbed the Israeli leader by not seeing him this week. Meeting at Hussein’s private residence in London, the Jordanian leader urged Netanyahu to stay out of a possible showdown between the United States and Iraq. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein provoked the crisis when he barred Americans from serving on U.N. weapons inspection teams that have monitored Iraqi weapons stockpiles since the end of the 1991 Gulf War. During that war, Iraq fired missiles at Israel in hopes of provoking a retaliation, which would likely have shattered the Arab coalition against Iraq. Israel, which came under heavy pressure at the time from the United States, did not retaliate. But officials in the Netanyahu government said this week they would not show the same restraint if fired upon again. Israeli officials said that King Hussein had initiated the meeting with Netanyahu, their first since relations between the two countries hit a nadir after Israeli intelligence agents carried out a botched assassination attempt in September on a Hamas leader in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Asher Susser, an expert on Jordan at Tel Aviv University, said that Hussein had not called the meeting to repair the diplomatic fallout from that failed attempt. “What is driving the meeting is not a need to improve personal ties with Netanyahu, but the deterioration in the Gulf that could draw in Jordan.” He added that while Jordan did not expect a guarantee from Israel not to strike back if attacked by Iraq, it wanted to know that any move would not “portray Jordan as being in collusion or cooperation with Israel.” Israel’s Government Press Office on Tuesday released recent statements from Palestinian Authority officials who had come out in support of Iraq. It also quoted Palestinian demonstrators during a recent protest in the West Bank town of Ramallah who had called on Saddam to “strike at Tel Aviv.” Despite the tensions in the Gulf, Israeli officials have said they do not believe that Israel faces an imminent threat from Iraq. Netanyahu had been in London last weekend before he flew to the United States to address the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in Indianapolis on Sunday night. From there he traveled to Los Angeles, where he addressed local Jewish leaders, the World Affairs Council and presented an award to actor Kirk Douglas at a fund raising gala for a Jerusalem yeshiva. But he cut his stay in California by one day to fly to London. In recent days, Netanyahu has said that President Clinton was right to stand firm against the Iraqi leader. But Netanyahu repeatedly made it clear that he believed the greatest long-term threat – to Europe and the United States as well as to Israel – came from Iran. In Israel, meanwhile, disgruntled Likud Knesset members are considering ways to oust Netanyahu as leader of the party. If successful, the campaign, led by Tel Aviv Mayor Ronnie Milo, could trigger new elections. “We will see some dramatic developments on the political scene very soon,” Milo told Army Radio on Monday. “I’m talking about significant changes in the leadership of the Likud. Nothing will be kept a secret on this matter.” Milo said that party rebels wanted to split Likud by luring away at least 12 of the party’s 22 Knesset members – a move that would enable them to retain the party name and its financing. Israeli media reports speculated that if that move failed, the rebels would try to topple the Netanyahu government by supporting the opposition’s next no-confidence motion. Among possible replacements for Netanyahu at the helm of a reconstituted Likud Party, the media suggested Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, Communications Minister Limor Livnat, former Science Minister Ze’ev “Benny” Begin and former Finance Minister Dan Meridor. Some party stalwarts’ dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s leadership style turned to public anger last week after the Likud Party convention of 2,700 delegates voted to cancel party primaries and place the selection of Knesset election lists in the hands of the party’s Central Committee, which is stacked with Netanyahu supporters. Cabinet Ministers accused Netanyahu of playing a double game – publicly urging the convention to put off a vote on the matter, while giving backers the green light to continue pressing the matter among activists. The outcry was further fueled by media reports this week that Netanyahu’s right-hand man, Avigdor Lieberman, who serves as director of the Prime Minister’s Office, had ordered the videotaping of opponents to last week’s initiative. Milo said that “long-time members of the movement underwent a major crisis” after they “saw what happened at the Likud convention.” The Likud caucus convened a stormy session Monday, where Knesset members lashed out at Netanyahu. Begin accused the prime minister of wanting to attain power and total control at all costs, including deceiving the ministers.
(JTA Correspondent Tom Tugend in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)