Who Could Topple Bibi?


With the resignation of Foreign Minister David Levy from his government this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unsheathing his final, and perhaps strongest, weapon for staying in power: the opposition Labor Party.

Even as some among those remaining in his government threatened to bring it down if he ceded any more West Bank territory to Palestinian control, others vowed to do so if he did not.

But Netanyahu, whose own ultimate intent on issues from redeployment to the Oslo peace process itself remain a matter of hot debate, has been ratcheting up the volume on the consequences he says they could all face if his government falls.

“I believe that the members of this coalition do not want the collapse of the government and the return of a left-wing government to power,” he said after Levy’s departure. “This thing will bring Israel immediately back to the lines of 1967.

“The dam will break,” he said later. “And the Labor Party will sell everything to the Palestinians.”

The reference was to the international borders Israel held before capturing the West Bank in 1967. Nothwithstanding that Labor Party leaders advocate significant border adjustments in any settlement, the specter of a surrender and rollback to the old ’67 lines, once called “Auschwitz lines” by Labor Party leader Abba Eban, remains a scary possibility to many Likud followers.

By invoking that specter now, Netanyahu hoped to restrain any Likud Knesset member, no matter where he stood, from bringing his government down only to bring on something worse.

No one doubted that Israel’s government leaned harder to the right this week with Levy’s resignation. Long a voice for consultation and compromise with the Palestinians, Levy’s departure leaves the bloc in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet backing this approach seriously weakened.

But now, they, no less than the hawks, also have the ability to end the government if their minimum requirements are not met. Thanks to Levy’s withdrawal with his five-person parliamentary faction, Netanyahu’s governing majority in the Knesset has been reduced to one vote. And that means any member of the coalition, whether centrist or rightist, can bring new elections by simply leaving it.

“Every Knesset member now becomes a king,” was how columnist Yossi Verter described the new situation in the liberal daily, Haaretz.

Now, as Netanyahu confronts a challenge from Washington to propose and implement a “significant and credible” redeployment of Israeli troops on the West Bank, some speculate he may use any stand he ultimately takes for or against a redeployment — on whatever terms he obtains — as a rationale to call new elections himself under conditions and timing of his own choosing.

In the meantime some key cabinet ministers and Knesset members to watch:

Yitzchak Mordechai:

Minister of defense and the key remaining centrist in the cabinet.

Mordechai, 53, has been a strong advocate for the defense establishment, even when its security assessments conflicted with Netanyahu’s political positions. A senior general and a non-politician until appointed to his current post, Mordechai is viewed as a tough, security-minded pragmatist. Recently, he and his generals responded to Netanyahu’s request for a security map outlining Israel’s “red lines” for the final status of the West Bank with a blueprint that left out 42 isolated settlements far from Jewish population centers. He advocated that a special political status be instead negotiated for these outposts in a final treaty. Tuesday, in a pointed reminder, he skipped a meeting of Netanyahu’s inner security cabinet on how to prepare for the meeting with Clinton and went instead to visit Israeli troops in south Lebanon.

Ariel Sharon:

Minister of infrastructure and the other key security figure in the cabinet.

Sharon, a legendary military commander, has mellowed somewhat since he was the bete noire of the Shamir cabinet to foreign policy officials in the administration of President George Bush. Once a vocal proponent of the idea that “Jordan is Palestine” — the notion that a Palestinian state could supplant the rule of King Hussein there, and allow Israel to keep all of the West Bank — he now reluctantly accepts the need for significant West Bank concessions. But his security map, drawn up at the same time as Mordechai’s, is much less generous to the Palestinians. Among other things, it would include within Isarel’s military umbrella the isolated settlements Mordechai excluded.

Avigdor Kahalani:

Minister of public security and leader of the four-person faction of the Third Way Party in the Knesset.

Also a distinguished former general, Kahalani was a member of the Labor Party’s Knesset faction — until he broke with it over what he viewed as its radical concessions to the Palestinians on the West Bank and readiness to concede territory to Syria on the Golan Heights. Nevertheless, Kahalani views his party as carrying on the tradition of cautious readiness to make concessions on the West Bank along the lines advocated the late Israeli leader Yigal Alon. He has no patience for those who advocate “not one inch” of more territorial compromise on the West Bank and has warned Netanyahu against taking him for granted — lest he learn as did Labor that this carries a price. Yehuda Harel, chairman of the Third Way, has been pushing for sometime for the party to move on. Crucially, observers believe it is one of the few parties in the governing coalition that would be likely to improve its standing in new elections.

Force 17:

A Knesset bloc of “not one-inchers,” these hardliners are blunt in their rejection of Oslo peace process as a failure that should be abandoned.

Led by Michael Kleiner, a longtime Likud member, Force 17 includes among its number Benny Begin, son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. They have vowed to bring down the government if Netanyahu proceeds with any more West Bank redeployments, come what may. Though they cannot join them, some members of the cabinet have voiced sympathy for their stand, including Communications Minister Livnor Livnat and Minister of Transport Yitzchak Levy, a National Religious Party member.