Bibi's future at stake as enemies unite

Until Sunday morning it seemed as if Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, was under attack from everybody in the world except his mother. Then it all changed. Zila Netanyahu, 84, said in an interview that her son's actions made her feel embarrassed rather than proud. She particularly objected to his release of Palestinian prisoners and said peace with the Arabs was "preposterous".

It is not as if Mr Netanyahu, who left yesterday for a three-day visit to Russia, was short of critics at home and abroad. Ariel Sharon, his own Infrastructure Minister and architect of his victory in the election last May, was quoted last week as telling a group of Israeli settlers: "Bibi Netanyahu is a dangerous man for the state of Israel. I do not believe one word that leaves that man's mouth."

Palestinian leaders were only sightly more polite. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian chief negotiator, resigned yesterday, accusing Israel of failing to consult over the scale of its withdrawal from 9 per cent the West Bank this week.

Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, said: "The policy of Mr Netanyahu and his government will lead us to the abyss."

Mr Netanyahu has always been a man with many enemies, but over the next 10 days he will have to fight for his survival as three separate crises - with the Palestinians, his own party and as the result of the so-called Bar-On scandal - come to the boil. Polls show only 21 per cent of Israelis would vote for him.

Surveying work will start early next at Har Homa, known to Palestinians as Jabal Abu Jhneim, where a Jewish settlement for 26,000 people is to be built in the face of international condemnation. This could provoke violence across the West Bank. Any international credit thePrime Minister won by his partial withdrawal from Hebron in January has evaporated.

Mr Arafat talked yesterday of Israeli "tricks" provoking a crisis in the peace process. This may be inspired as much by a sense of Mr Netanyahu's weakness as by his disappointment that only 7 per cent of the West Bank is to come under the full control of the Palestinian Authority. Another 2 per cent will be jointly controlled. This means another 200,000 Palestinians in 50 towns and villages will be free of the Israeli occupation for the first time since 1967.

Moving too slowly to satisfy the Palestinians, Mr Netanyahu has alienated his own right wing. This is his second crisis. The extreme right sees him giving up the West Bank and ending their dream of a state stretching from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean. They suspect that once 1.1 million Palestinians, with their own security forces, are no longer under the day-to-day control of the Israeli army, it will be difficult for Mr Netanyahu to retain more than a few segments of the West Bank.

Seven members of Mr Netanyahu's coalition say they may vote against him in a no-confidence vote. This is too few to bring down the government. And, angry though they are, they do not want to vote themselves out of a job. More menacing for Mr Netanyahu is a move to change the law, in order to make it possible to vote the Prime Minister out of office without dissolving the Knesset.

This constitutional change could happen if the official opposition - Labour, Meretz and the Arab parties - combine with the dissident right and Mr Netanyahu's enemies in his Likud party. These are numerous. At a rally in Tel Aviv last month other party leaders were not allowed to speak. Mr Netanyahu's supporters were accused of mobilising groups of thugs who shouted "traitor" at his opponents. Fortunately for the Prime Minister, his enemies detest each other as much as they dislike him.


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