'Hawk' clips Israeli PM's wings

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It is Benjamin Netanyahu's biggest defeat since he became Prime Minister. As he flew off to Washington yesterday the Israeli parliament was creating a custom-made ministry for General Ariel Sharon, the leader of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, whom Mr Netanyahu has tried and failed to keep out of his cabinet as "a persistent dissident".

In the aftermath of his election victory five weeks ago, it must all have looked easy. Mr Netanyahu had won largely thanks to General Sharon's success in uniting the right and cultivating religious leaders. But the new Prime Minister showed no enthusiasm for giving a government job to his former chief lieutenant.

What Mr Netanyahu may not have known is that his distrust of General Sharon was only equalled by General Sharon's distrust of him. The general had taken out an insurance policy in the shape of a mutual assistance pact with David Levy, the Foreign Minister, who twice threatened to resign unless General Sharon became a minister.

In the end, Mr Netanyahu's attempt to treat General Sharon like an Israeli Falstaff - whom the 68-year-old hero of the far right vaguely resembles - ended in humiliation for the Prime Minister. As Mr Netanyahu explained the necessity of creating a new Ministry of National Infrastructure from the podium of the Knesset yesterday he smiled ingratiatingly at General Sharon, who sat staring grumpily ahead.

The dispute was not about ideology, though General Sharon's inclusion in the cabinet will make it more difficult for Mr Netanyahu to show any flexibility towards the Palestinians. Sacked as Defence Minister in 1982 after the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Chatila in Beirut, General Sharon calls Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organisation leader, a "war criminal".

Mr Netanyahu is good at shrugging off setbacks. Yesterday he played down the row over General Sharon saying: "Dramatisation adds spice to life." But his attempt to marginalise his old enemies in the Likud party, like Dan Meridor at Finance and David Levy at the Foreign Ministry, has failed. He now faces a cabinet filled with his enemies.

Since he is directly elected, Mr Netanyahu cannot be deposed, but his efforts to remodel the Israeli Prime Minister's Office along the lines of the White House are not going well. Even the attempt to promote his wife Sara as First Lady is foundering after she was denounced by two of her former nannies for mistreating them.

Personally and politically, Mr Netanyahu, who meets President Clinton today, remains a mystery to Israelis. On policy, he repeats his campaign theme that he will provide greater security, but without making significant concessions to Arab or Palestinian demands.

In the rest of the Middle East this looks like the end of the peace-for- land formula which underlies the Oslo peace agreements. Mr Netanyahu, for his part, blandly says: "What is happening is that the Arabs are adapting - the Palestinians, the Syrians and others - adapting to the new reality."

Mr Netanyahu is expected to tell President Clinton that Mr Levy will meet Mr Arafat and he will then meet him himself. The Israeli press says he is unlikely to spell out Israeli intentions on withdrawal from most of Hebron or the future of Orient House, the PLO headquarters in East Jerusalem.

But in a US election year, President Clinton, who did all he could to keep Shimon Peres as Israeli premier, will be eager to announce all is well with his Middle East policy. Overall, Mr Netanyahu should have an easier ride than he has had in Israel.