18th January 1998

Netanyahu smartly rides storm

by Mervyn de Silva

Elected Presidents and Prime Ministers usu ally manufacture their own survival kits. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should patent his.

"We are frequently told that we must sympathise with Israel because of the suffering of the Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazis," observed Bertrand Russell a few days before he died in 1970 at the age of 98. "What Israel is doing today cannot be condoned, and to invoke the horror of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy. How much longer is the world willing to allow this spectacle of wanton cruelty?"

Israel will soon celebrate 50 years of independence but the Palestinians will declare it a day of mourning because "Israel" represents the occupation of Palestinian land by force. The PLO leadership and the Arab League realise that the chances of recovering that land are remote, if not nil. The moderate leaders, Chairman Yasser Arafat most of all, have therefore agreed to stop their popular revolt on a formula popularly described as "land for peace". Israel must return part of "the occupied territories" on which the PLO the accredited Palestinian leadership, could establish an autonomous administration, described by some commentators in the Israeli press as "a mini-state".

Last week though, a new demand made the headlines.... a demand that in fact represents the return of history. The Palestinian leadership threatens to insist on the 1947 UN partition plan!

If the rightwing LIKUD-led coalition of Prime Minister Netanyahu refuses to withdraw from his present position on the West Bank, claiming that it is part of "Israel proper", the Palestinians in turn will insist on the strict implementation of the United Nations Resolution 181 of 1947.

It is a clever move and Prime Minister Netanyahu knows that. The partition plan not only visualised two independent states but conceded the Palestinians far more land than the PLO has demanded in the current negotiations.

These questions will remain theoretical. For a hard-nosed "What I have, I keep" realist like Netanyahu, UN resolutions mean little. What he has, he will hold until a stronger force persuades him otherwise, one way or another. The only force that could do so is the United States, the sole superpower, not the United Nations. Or pressure within his coalition which on many occasions has the narrowest majorities in the 120 seat Knesset. Often he gets his resolutions passed by two or three votes, occasionally with one vote. There lies what American commentators often describe as a "window of vulnerability".... his six-seven-or-eight party coalition.

The leaders of these parties usually get a place in the Cabinet but they come and go. The press, foreign and Israeli, cry "CRISIS" but Netanyahu remains. The ruling alliance may change from 9 to 8 or 8 to 7, but Netanyahu carries on. The question right now is whether this charmed life is ending. He has too many problems and too many enemies and critics. And the United States which helped to create the State of Israel via the United Nations may soon regard Prime Minister Netanyahu in this new post-Cold War context where the 'Soviet Union" (Russia now) is no more a serious threat, the Islamic revival is a challenge, while the oil-rich region retains its strategic importance.

Cabinet conflict

Looking back at events things are clearer. The crisis began with the resignation of Finance Minister Dan Meridor. At first, the world press and even some reputed newspapers in Israel like the MAARIV and the JERUSALEM POST, and their national affairs analysts emphasised disagreements between Minister Meridor and the Bank of Israel, the Central Bank. The issue apparently was the Bank's attempt to change Israel's Exchange rate mechanism. Meridor firmly denied that this was the issue. Netanyahu had decided that his Finance Minister must go and he timed it when five Cabinet Ministers were abroad or had informed the Cabinet Secretary that they were unable to attend the meeting. The absentees included Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordecai and Ms. Limor Livnat, the Communications Minister, both critics of Prime Minister Netanyahu's style of running the government, an ideologically assorted coalition.

"It was a great victory for Netanyahu," said Ephraim Inbar, the Director of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. "He got rid of Meridor, his opponent. He never wanted him in the first place as Finance Minister.... Meridor fell into the trap and is now on. He has no political base".

But outmanoeuvring Meridor was easy. Not David Levy, the Foreign Minister. His post gave him ready access to all diplomatic missions in Jerusalem, starting with the American Embassy and the European Union representatives.

"The resignation of David Levy brought to an end his bitter working relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu," wrote British Correspondent Judy Dempsey.

The issue was what Mr. Levy called the callous neglect of "the unemployed and the socially disadvantaged," very little to do with international affairs! This had past, this tension between the Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister. One (the Prime Minister) is an Ashkenazi Jew. He has lived abroad for many years while David Levy his Foreign Minister has a Sephardic (oriental Jewish) background noted the same reporter. More to the point, I think, is their long-standing rivalry for leadership of the LIKUD party, Israeli Conservative Party, the traditional rival of Labour. Having cut formal links with LIKUD, Mr. Levy launched his own party known as GESHER or bridge.

Its constituency is the poorly paid worker and women, and of course the Sephardic voter. Of more concern to Sri Lanka students of the Middle East, and the Arab-Israeli issue is that Mr. Levy accuses the Prime Minister of breaking his platform pledges, most of all, his plain indifference to those fundamental issues that were addressed by the OSLO ACCORDS that the Labour Party of Shimon Peres negotiated with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

US role

Prime Minister Netanyahu's most serious mistake may prove to be what has always been Israel's strongest asset.... the special relationship with the United States. To start with, he treated Secretary of State Madeleine Albright rather shabbily.... and Madame Madeleine is no chicken. Hard as nails, Secretary of State Albright was after all President Clinton's special envoy. The PLO leader and his senior aides have recognised Mr. Netanyahu's diplomatic blunder and the opportunities it may offer the PLO." There is a wide gap between the two sides, there was no progress during US special envoy Dennis Ross' visit and there are no positive signals from Israel, yet President Arafat still hopes the US President and his administration will work towards resolving the current crisis."

Israel will celebrate its 50th year as an independent state soon. Israel owes its birth to the United Nations in the legal sense but its greatest debt is to the United States, The LIKUD strategists probably think that President Clinton will have no time to sort out the Middle-East mess. That would be a gross miscalculation. On foreign policy problems of this magnitude.... Oil and the Arab/Islamic world.... there is a tradition of continuity, Israel concentrates on the region.

To meet the Islamic challenge, it has strengthened relations with Turkey. It was the wise old man of Israel, the 73 year old Ezer Weisman, President of Israel who sounded a well-timed warning.

"I cannot be in favour of 50th anniversary celebrations even though I waited for them and I am happy to be around for them. When I see Ofakim and Avivim and some other places, I think that spending millions of shekels on celebrations is not right." The two towns made headlines for protests over high unemployment.

Without the generous assistance of a wealthy Uncle Sam, a divided Jewish political establishment, Likud confronted by Labour, cannot provide stable government, however brilliant, cunning and ruthless its Prime Minister.

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