Netanyahu faces right-wing split

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The Independent Online
BENJAMIN Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, will return from Wye to find the right-wing coalition, which brought him to power, deeply split. The division is between the settlers and their allies, who do not want to surrender an inch of the West Bank as the land God gave to the Jews, and the rest of the right, who believe Mr Netanyahu got the best deal possible.

It is a rupture that could transform Israeli politics. Since he won the election in 1996 Mr Netanyahu has been able to ride two political horses: those opposed to Oslo accords and those who want them modified. The agreement reached yesterday means that the far right, which saw Oslo as a betrayal, will try to bring down his government.

The outcome may well be an election, which Mr Netanyahu will expect to win. A poll in the daily Maariv yesterday showed 81 per cent of Israelis support continuing the peace process with the Palestinians and only 14 per cent opposed. The opposition Labour party is divided and unlikely to do well at the polls.

Mr Netanyahu has tried hard to keep the settlers on board. He told their leaders and supporters in the Knesset: "If I, Benjamin Netanyahu, have come to the conclusion that there is no choice, then there really is no choice." He said he could not afford to alienate the centre, who wanted to give Oslo a chance, adding: "It isn't possible to call it all off. I'm minimising the damage."

Arguing with one right-wing leader Mr Netanyahu hintedthat the divisions in Israel over Oslo were so deep that he couldn't ignore its supporters if the conflict in the West Bank turned into a war. He said: "I don't want to find myself in the next war with half the army staying at home, refusing to report to the front."

To the settlers who blocked roads on the West Bank yesterday these are not appealing arguments. At least seven members of his coalition in the Knesset will vote for a no-confidence motion, depriving him of his majority. Hanan Porat, a leader of the National Religious Party, said the hardliners' plan is to force an election during which implementation of the Wye agreement would be suspended.

The problem for this strategy is that it requires co-operation of the Labour party and Meretz, which is further to the left, in removing the government. They are unlikely to do this since they want to see Oslo implemented.

The strength of the backlash against Mr Netanyahu will depend on how much support the opposition to Wye wins from within his own cabinet. He has tried to co-opt Ariel Sharon, the most obvious leader of a right-wing revolt, by making him foreign minister.

The Israeli media estimated yesterday that five of his cabinet ministers supported the deal, four opposed it and seven were undecided. Tzachi Hanegbi, the justice minister, said: "An agreement is emerging under which the Palestinian commitment would not be kept."

This opposition on the exact terms agreed at Wye may evaporate, particularly if Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy, is freed. Mr Netanyahu has also made a cabinet revolt more difficult to mount by bringing the three heavy weights of his cabinet, Arik Sharon, Yitzhak Mordechai, the defence minister and Nathan Sharansky, the trade and industry minister, with him to Wye.

The danger is the settlers, though small in number, are fanatical, well- organised and highly motivated. If they find themselves politically isolated they might resort to the sort of violence conducted in 1994-95.