News Analysis: Domestic Attacks on Netanyahu Appear Likely to Weaken His Position

A series of domestic upheavals in Israel is likely to affect the prospects of advancing the long-stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

But what the long-term impact will be is far from clear.

On the one hand, unprecedented attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by senior officials presumably have weakened the premier. As a result, his ability to conclude an agreement on further redeploying Israeli forces from the West Bank and then face down his hard-line opponents within the coalition could also have been weakened.

On the other hand, as internal pressures mount on Netanyahu, they might prod him to seek renewed support at home and abroad by making a deal with the Americans and the Palestinians and getting the peace process back on track.

The most serious and public confrontations between Netanyahu and senior officials have pitted him against Israel’s president and the Israel Defense Force chief of staff.

The upheavals come as Washington continues to press Israel to agree to carry out a 13 percent further redeployment in the West Bank as part of an American compromise proposal aimed at breaking a 16-month deadlock in Israeli- Palestinian negotiations.

At the same time, Netanyahu has found himself under fire in recent weeks for floating two separate proposals that have been interpreted as delaying tactics.

One proposal centered on convening an international conference to discuss regional issues.

The premier raised the idea in an interview published over the weekend in a Spanish newspaper, suggesting that the purpose of such a gathering would be to encourage multilateral dialogue in such areas as arms control, energy and water.

Netanyahu said that he did not envision the proposed conference as replacing an American initiative to break the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian talks or as an alternative to resuming bilateral talks.

But the idea was quickly rejected by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and belittled by Israeli opposition leaders.

Last week, Netanyahu was taken to task by the Arab world, the Israeli opposition and even some members of his own coalition for proposing that a national referendum be held on the issue of redeploying Israeli troops from the West Bank.

The Palestinians accused Netanyahu of trying to delay the redeployment, and some in Israel questioned the legalities of turning to the general public on a major policy issue that should be decided by elected officials.

The Prime Minister’s Office said this week a final decision on whether to hold a referendum would be discussed by the Cabinet only after an agreement is reached between Israel and the Palestinians on the redeployment.

Taken together, these developments led Israeli President Ezer Weizman to charge this week that Netanyahu was governing by “trial and error.”

Weizman challenged Netanyahu earlier this week to conclude the redeployment deal — or hold early elections. In a series of interviews, he said the state of the nation was “not good,” referring at length to the stalled peace process, to the dramatic ebbing of Israel’s status in the Arab world and to the government’s ongoing disputes with foreign countries that are among Israel’s closest friends.

Weizman’s words triggered an immediate storm of controversy — both over the constitutional propriety of a president, who is supposed to be an apolitical figure, interfering in policy-making, and over the substance of his remarks.

This uproar came hard on the heels of an earlier row between the premier and the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Amnon Shahak.

At the end of last week, an exchange of letters between Netanyahu and Shahak was leaked in which Israel’s top soldier explicitly accused its top civilian of lying.

The root of this dispute was the weekly Cabinet meeting of June 21, when Netanyahu abruptly stopped Shahak in mid-report and explained, to the ministers and later to the nation, that the chief of staff was about to discuss political matters instead of talking solely about security issues.

Shahak fervently denied this description of his report on trends in the Arab world, which he insisted was based on assessments made by military intelligence.

But the Netanyahu-Shahak feud goes beyond the substance of their dispute and touches on the proper structure of Israel’s democracy. Army officers are expected not to criticize their civilian superiors. If they do so, knowing that their criticism will reach the public, they risk politicization of the military and, worse perhaps, they blur the lines of hierarchical command that must exist if the army is to remain loyal to the democratic state and its elected officials.

Shahak will soon leave his post after three-and-a-half years as chief of staff. Netanyahu’s aides dismissed the episode as reflecting Shahak’s reported flirtation with opposition groups seeking to woo him into politics.

Compounding the Shahak-Netanyahu altercation was a spat between the outgoing deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Matan Vilnai, and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

Vilnai, who is openly bitter at Netanyahu, and especially at Mordechai, for passing him over for the top army position, publicly criticized the defense establishment’s strategic and long-term planning, saying that Israel could not defend itself against surface-to-surface missiles developed by Muslim countries.

Mordechai responded quickly, dispatching a top aide to disclose that dozens of senior officers, academics and other outside experts have been engaged for the past 18 months in recasting Israel’s basic defense doctrines in the face of shifting strategic threats and changing diplomatic realities.

Still, Vilnai, Shahak — and now Weizman — struck painful blows at the government’s credibility.

The president, moreover, unfazed by the criticism that his criticism aroused, pledged throughout the week to continue his campaign for early elections, regardless of the prime minister’s dismissal of the idea.

The elections, Netanyahu insisted, would be held on schedule in the year 2000.

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