Netanyahu under pressure to decide on withdrawal

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The US peace envoy, Dennis Ross, meets Israeli and Palestinian leaders this week. At issue is how much pressure he will put on Benjamin Netanyahu over Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem reports on how American demands are threatening to tear Israel's ruling coalition apart.

Dennis Ross, the American peace envoy, is not a man with a reputation for putting pressure on Israel. In the past Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders have hinted publicly that they regard him as little more than an Israeli agent.

But his present visit is critical for the survival of the Israeli government. Mr Netanyahu, the Prime Minister, who sees President Bill Clinton in Washington on 20 January, cannot put off a decision on how far Israel is going to withdraw on the West Bank much longer. If he withdraws from at least 10 per cent of the West Bank - as he has promised - then the far-right in the Knesset (parliament) will vote against him. If he does not, then he will lose the support of the centre right, such as the Third Way party.

Mr Netanyahu has succeeded in playing for time before. But Israeli political commentators believe that his administration will have difficulty in surviving for the rest of the year. The resignation of David Levy, the foreign minister, at the week-end emphasised that the government is in a permanent state of crisis.

Mr Ross has already held talks with Mr Netanyahu who presides over a cabinet increasingly dominated by Ariel Sharon, the Infrastructure Minister, who advocates a minimal withdrawal on the West Bank. Under the interim accords of 1995, Israel promised to end the occupation of most of the West Bank where 1.5 million Palestinians live.

The American envoy says Mr Netanyahu did not give him details of the intended Israeli withdrawal. He then met Mr Arafat in Bethlehem who told him that Israel had "no more excuses" for delaying troop withdrawals agreed in interim peace deals. "I'm out here to work on the process, to work with both sides to try to find ways to move forward in advance of the meetings that will take place in Washington," Mr Ross told reporters.

The last time peace talks showed any results was when Israel withdrew from most of the West Bank city of Hebron a year ago. With the departure of Mr Levy the only senior cabinet minister favouring a significant withdrawal is Yitzhak Mordechai, the Defence Minister, but he is increasingly isolated.