Israeli far right may force elections

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The Independent Online
ISRAELI POLITICAL parties are readying themselves for an early election as the far right prepares to bring down the government because of its agreement to withdraw from part of the West Bank. Representatives of the Jewish settlers living on land conquered by Israel in 1967 say they "no longer see Benjamin Netanyahu as leader of the national camp".

The far right joined the left yesterday in a vote by a parliamentary committee which allows the full Knesset to vote on an election in the next few weeks. Right-wing opponents of Mr Netanyahu say they would like an election next March.

If the government does fall it will be because of this unholy alliance between the far right and the left. The government coalition has 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. To be sure of overturning its majority the National Religious Party, which regards the West Bank as the land God gave to the Jews, must ally itself with the Labour party, its left- wing ally Meretz and the Israeli-Arab parties.

It is a dangerous game for both sides. Ehud Barak, the leader of the Labour party, will have to explain why he brought down the government just when it had fulfilled part of the Oslo accords. "Centrist voters will never forgive him for this," said one Israeli commentator. The far right will also have to explain to its followers why it is overthrowing a governmentthat can only be replaced by one more likely to give up land on the West Bank.

Ever since he stepped off his plane in Tel Aviv on returning from the United States, Mr Netanyahu has been trying to pacify the Messianic right of his coalition. "We blocked many of the holes in the `Swiss cheese' of Oslo," he said at the airport. "To hand over even a centimetre of the Land of Israel to the Palestinian Authority is very, very difficult."

So far, at least, he is not winning over his enemies. Yesterday Israeli newspapers carried advertisements placed by extreme right groups showing pictures of Mr Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, the foreign minister. Underneath is the accusation: "You are responsible for this shameful agreement." This is followed by the slogan: "We will remember. We won't forget and we won't forgive."

The electoral punch of these far-right sub-groups is not large. They are feeling isolated. When they held a demonstration recently in Jerusalem, no well-known politicians addressed them. This is very different from 1995, when Mr Netanyahu was happy to whip up baying crowds of settlers with speeches about the treachery of the government.

The electoral arithmetic shows that there should be a majority for an election. Unless there are last-minute defections there are 60 votes against the government, of which 52 come from Labour and its allies and eight from right-wing dissidents. It is the nine members of the National Religious Party, (NRP), which is part of the governing coalition, which will give the opposition its majority. The NRP has been at the cutting edge of establishing settlements on the West Bank. Their Knesset faction has already voted for elections. Next week their central committee must confirm this.

Mr Netanyahu is well placed to win. The Labour party is in disarray. Its main charge against him was that he would not sign an agreement with the Palestinians and was secretly sabotaging Oslo. After the Wye summit Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, described Mr Netanyahu as his new "co-partner for peace". It is not a description he will relish, but it knocks away the main plank in Labour's platform that only it can reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

In the race to be prime minister Mr Netanyahu, who is elected separately from parliament, would almost certainly triumph over Mr Barak. But the Knesset is different. Israel is divided into so many antipathetic political, ethnic, cultural and religious communities that the result is always a toss-up.

Knowing this, Mr Netanyahu will try to prevent the far right forcing an election. He may succeed, though it is difficult to see how without watering down the Wye agreement. An alternative for him is a unity government with Labour, which might come before or after the election.

n A security guard at Kiryat Arba, a militant Jewish settlement overlooking the Palestinian city of Hebron, was found shot dead yesterday in the first killing of an Israeli since the Wye agreement was signed.

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