Insults fly as Bibi fights for political life

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The Independent Online
Even by the standards of Benjamin Netanyahu's government it was a low blow. In a no-confidence motion Tzahi Hanegbi, the Justice Minister, repeatedly pronounced the name of Ehud Barak, the Labour party leader, as "Barach", which in Hebrew means "fled" or "ran away." This was an uncharitable reference to allegations that in 1992 Mr Barak, then army chief of staff, left the scene of an army training accident before all the wounded were treated.

The charge outraged Labour members of the Knesset and much of the media. They pointed out that Mr Hanegbi had only just escaped indictment over the appointment of Roni Bar-On, a political crony, as attorney-general earlier in the year. As a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem he had allegedly hired thugs with chains to beat up Palestinians.

Like many of Mr Netanyahu's manoeuvres the attack on Mr Barak was more cunning than it looked. It diverted attention from the virulent feuds within the Prime Minister's coalition which in the past 10 days have come close to tearing it apart. Mr Netanyahu won the vote in the 120-member Knesset by 55-50, but 11 members of his coalition refused to vote for him. David Levy, his Foreign Minister, abstained and earlier in the day refused to return the Prime Minister's phone calls.

Mr Netanyahu's career has been built on escaping political disaster by the skin of his teeth. He may do so again, if only because his many enemies inside and outside his coalition cannot unite against him. Despite victory in the Knesset vote, the turmoil in his coalition is so great that by the end of summer Mr Netanyahu may be forced to call elections, reorganise his coalition or replace it with a national- unity government. It is also conceivable that if 80 Knesset members vote against him, there would be elections for the prime minister but not the Knesset.

The most dangerous crisis facing Mr Netanyahu revolves around the three leading members of his government. Mr Levy has a long-held ambition to be prime minister. Ariel Sharon, the Infrastructure Minister, on whom the Prime Minister has recently been forced to rely, wants to be finance minister and join the inner cabinet. This is a troika consisting of Mr Netanyahu, Mr Levy and Yitzhak Mordechai, the Defence Minister, which decides on negotiations with the Palestinians and defence policy.

Other crises facing Mr Netanyahu can probably be resolved. One threat comes from Dan Meridor, the Finance Minister, who resigned last week, and Benny Begin, who quit over the Hebron deal with the Palestinians. Known as "the princes" because they are the sons of party leaders, they both have a record of ineffectuality.

Natan Sharansky, leader of the Russian-immigrant party, who last week was refusing to return Mr Netanyahu's calls, has been bought off with a deal which gives more money to the Russian community.

In last year's poll Israelis for the first time voted separately for the prime minister and the Knesset. The result was political fragmentation. The largest parties, Labour and Likud, together won 56 seats outs of 120 and have to rely on allies. The result has been to encourage political paralysis. The issues at stake are generally personal. This weakens Mr Netanyahu but it prevents his overthrow. The real danger for him lies in the disaffection of Mr Levy and senior cabinet members.

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