Right threatens West Bank accord

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The Independent Online
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU will spend today, Yom Kippur, the most contemplative day of the Jewish year, calculating how to call the bluff of his right- wing coalition partners who are threatening to bring him down if he agrees to hand over more West Bank territory to the Palestinians.

The Israeli Prime Minister's White House summit on Monday with the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and President Bill Clinton set the stage for a showdown that Mr Netanyahu has evaded for the past 19 months.

At the Washington summit, Mr Arafat accepted a modified version to a United States peace proposal in which Israel will withdraw its troops from 13 per cent of the West Bank.

Aharon Domb, general secretary of the West Bank and Gaza settlers' council, warned the Israeli leader: "If there is a withdrawal, there will be no government."

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders will return to Washington in mid- October, accompanied by advisers, for a replay of the 1978 Camp David conference, which led to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. On that occasion, President Jimmy Carter kept Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat secluded in his Maryland retreat for 13 days until they were ready to sign.

The Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, is coming to the Middle East next week to sustain the momentum and settle as many points still in dispute as possible before the next summit. Mr Clinton said on Monday that there had been a "significant narrowing of the gaps".

The cautious assumption on all sides of the Israeli debate is that there is a real chance of a breakthrough which would balance a 13 per cent Israeli withdrawal with more vigorous efforts by the Palestinians to curb Islamist violence.

Israel's Defence Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, predicted yesterday that it would "surely be possible to reach a package of deals in a number of areas" during Mrs Albright's visit.

But hardline coalition opponents of the Oslo agreement will do their best to prove him wrong. "We say no," said Hanan Porat, a leader of the National Religious Party, the third biggest in the coalition, with nine MPs. "If the government decides on this withdrawal, which means giving Arafat a Palestinian state on a silver platter, we won't be able to be partners to this government, and that means there will be elections."

With Mr Netanyahu's parliamentary base already eroded to a precarious 61 out of 120, the dissidents could force a dissolution if the Labour and other left-wing opposition parties joined them in voting against the Prime Minister.

Assuming, however, that he seals an agreement that satisfies Mr Arafat, the government is unlikely to fall in the short term, as opposition MPs would vote for the deal.

The question is whether the left-wing parties will shore him up when he is challenged on other issues. They have been striving for months to bring Mr Netanyahu down.

Interviewed just before the Jewish new year, Mr Netanyahu reminded the right that early elections could bring to power a left-wing government ready for much greater concessions to the Palestinians. "I don't believe," he said, "that anyone will descend to such folly."