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NEWS ANALYSIS Netanyahu scores wins too, but will they save coalition?

JERUSALEM, Dec. 16 (JTA) — While President Clinton”s Middle East visit is widely seen as a major success for the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also claiming victory. And Netanyahu, in what may be a final effort to save his eroding coalition, plans to ask the Knesset on Monday to back these claimed victories. Netanyahu announced Wednesday that he would seek Knesset support on Monday for his stand on the peace process — implementing the Wye accord only in conjunction with Palestinian fulfillment of their obligations under the agreement. If he fails to win such support, Netanyahu said he would resign and appeal directly to the Israeli people in new elections. Netanyahu”s announcement came after his finance minister resigned Tuesday and his defense minister hinted that he might join with the opposition in calling for new elections. By laying down the gauntlet, Netanyahu is trying to regain control of his political future ahead of a vote of no-confidence that already was scheduled for Monday. In making his case to the Knesset — and the public — Netanyahu is certain to claim that Clinton”s visit resulted in two successes for Israel: * Palestinian officials, with the entire world watching, annulled the clauses in their national covenant that called for Israel”s destruction. This had long been Netanyahu”s demand, and it represented one of his conditions for further progress in the peace process. * Netanyahu made no new concessions to Clinton and succeeded in postponing the next redeployment in the West Bank, which was supposed to take place Friday. By making no new concessions, Netanyahu can now urge hard-liners in his coalition to support him and not carry out their earlier threats to side with the Labor-led opposition in calling for early elections. But many Israeli observers are interpreting these successes as short-lived tactical triumphs. Taking a longer view, they say the Clinton visit has resulted in serious and lasting setbacks, both for Netanyahu and for Israel. Granted, they add, members of the Palestine National Council and other Palestinian groups did indeed revoke their charter during a historic meeting Monday in the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu has made a point of claiming credit for the move, saying it only came about as a result of his unflinching stance during months of frustrating negotiations. But in legal substance, these observers point out, the step taken at the Gaza meeting was a duplication of the PNC”s original act of annulling the charter in April 1996, a step that Netanyahu has repeatedly dismissed. More significantly, the latest act of annulment is being seen in the Palestinian territories — and indeed around the world — as a giant step toward the very Palestinian independence that the Israeli leader so strongly opposes. Clinton”s presence at Monday”s vote, his quasi-state visit to the Gaza Strip and his statements aimed at recognizing Palestinian sensibilities as much as Israeli concerns — these were all seen as huge successes for Arafat and for the Palestinian cause that, in time, will dwarf Netanyahu”s ostensible achievement in getting the charter re-annulled. The Israeli media, describing Clinton”s visit to Gaza as a milestone in the annals of Palestinian nationalism, made comparisons with momentous events in the history of Zionism — the First Zionist Congress and the Balfour Declaration among them. And in terms of relations between leaders and governments, the president and his aides stopped even the attempt of concealing their profound differences with Netanyahu. This was starkly apparent in Clinton”s repeated assertion to the assembled Palestinian representatives in Gaza that their action on the charter would speak to the hearts of the people of Israel — rather than to their government. On the domestic level, too, Netanyahu”s lurch to the right may prove a success of short-lived duration. It may earn him support next Monday in the Knesset, but rumblings among the more moderate elements in his coalition are already discernible. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who finds himself increasingly outflanked by the tough-talking Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, is saying he will “reconsider”” the state of the government. Mordechai”s top generals and senior officials of the Shin Bet domestic security agency are known to favor a softer line on the issue of prisoner release than that advocated by Netanyahu and Sharon. The prisoner issue, more than any other item of dispute, has soured the atmosphere — and ignited the Palestinian streets — in the weeks since the Wye agreement was signed in late October. Clinton, throughout his visit, pressed Netanyahu to retreat from his stance that no prisoners who have blood on their hands or are members of the militant Hamas movement would be freed. The premier refused to relent, and he is now making much political capital out of that refusal. But Mordechai and the relatively moderate Third Way Party, another coalition partner, have yet to say how they feel about the virtual collapse of the implementation of the Wye accord. Mordechai was expected in the coming days to state that the Israeli electorate should have its say. Netanyahu”s veiled threat to take the initiative of calling early elections was perhaps intended to whip shaky coalition members back into line so that the Likud leader can regroup and carry on. But it could also mean that Netanyahu has come to believe, after a hard-headed assessment of the government”s inherent weakness, that the end is near. Either way, the prime minister is now clearly determined to head off any challenge against his leadership from the right-wing national camp. Whether he stays in office or seeks new elections, he will project himself as the leader who refused to give ground to the Palestinians, despite intensive, almost public pressure from no less a figure than the president of the United States. Where does all this leave the peace process? Despite brave attempts by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to claim some progress during the president”s three days in the region, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are making no such pretense. Despite the move to annul the charter, Israel is flatly refusing to carry out any further redeployments until the Palestinian Authority carries out further obligations — including the confiscation of weapons, the elimination of anti-Israel rhetoric from schoolbooks, ending incitement and retracting the threat to declare statehood unilaterally next May. For their part, Palestinian officials are saying these demands reflect nothing more than Netanyahu”s desire to survive next week”s Knesset session. As Clinton flew home to face his own domestic battles, it appeared more likely that there would be renewed violent confrontations than any further progress in implementing the Wye accord in the weeks ahead. And as far as the future of the Netanyahu government is concerned, there was a telling moment in Clinton”s schedule before leaving the region Tuesday. After the summit with Netanyahu and Arafat, Clinton and his family visited Bethlehem and Masada. From there they went to Ben-Gurion Airport, where the president held separate meetings on the tarmac with Netanyahu and another Israeli politician: opposition leader Ehud Barak of the Labor Party.