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Mixed Signals

Is Benyamin Netanyahu working to destroy his Likud Party?

Mixed Signals
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FOR Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, it's been a case of appointments that never were. And it worked both ways. First, his attempt to appoint Professor Yaacov Frankel, a professional economist, as finance minister was foiled. Then, Netanyahu prevented the appointment of the hardline Likud Knesset member and former defence minister, Ariel Sharon, to any position in the government.

All of which left the Israeli public with one question: is Netanyahu seeking to destroy his own party, the Likud? Frankel's appointment was aimed at ensuring that the policy of the new government would be business-like, and not ideological. And Netanyahu's complicated manoeuvres to keep Sharon out of the government were an effort to strengthen this impression.

However, the official policy guidelines of the new government do not augur well for the West Asia peace process. The guidelines speak about the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, emphasise the negation of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the vital importance of the Golan Heights to Israel's security.

It is not clear what role ideology will play in the new dispensation. With the exception of the foreign affairs and defence committees, all the other important committees were given by Netanyahu to the small coalition partners of the Likud instead of the Likud itself. This was after he had already distributed a large number of ministries to his coalition partners. It is thus likely that the new government will be more of a personal alliance between Netanyahu and the small parties against the Likud. Ironically, in order to strengthen his own position within the Likud, Netanyahu has been forced to seek the support of smaller but more right-wing forces in the government.

Why is Netanyahu operating against his own party? In a campaign speech, he had said that he wanted to build the Likud on the lines of the US Republican Party. But the Likud as it is today, an ideological party built on the foundation of the idea of the Greater Land of Israel, isn't suited to be a Republican Party. Netanyahu not only fears that his colleagues will not allow him to institute reforms in the decaying party structure, but also that, given key ministries, they would work to dislodge him as leader.

The religious parties had doubts about Netanyahu. Their main concern was housing for the poor strata among Jews. Sharon promised them—he says he did this in Netanyahu's name—the housing portfolio. But, a day after the polls, Netanyahu offered the housing portfolio to Sharon, thereby ensuring that he would not be able to accept. This has also worried Israeli settlers in the West Bank who want an upsurge in settlement building. Interestingly, the government guidelines, while guaranteeing the consolidation of the existing settlements, say nothing about new settlements.

The reference to Palestinians conveys a similar message: on the one hand, the new government recognises the Palestinian Authority and makes a commitment to negotiate with it on the permanent peace agreement. On the other hand, the guidelines make talks with the Palestinians contingent on the full and exact implementation of their commitments. This is a blatant loophole which will allow the new government to evade its own commitments.

Another signal of the hardline stand came when, in his victory speech, Netanyahu left out Syria from the list of nations he said Israel was planning to conduct negotiations with. This evoked strong reactions from the Arab world. "We will not be ignored," said Syrian President Haffez Assad. Damascus has said it would not resume peace negotiations with Israel as long as Netanyahu rejects a land-for-peace deal that has been the cornerstone of negotiations since 1991.

The Palestinians also denounced Netanyahu's stand. A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority said his utterances indicated that he preferred war to peace. Netanyahu has refused to meet Yasser Arafat. There are also rumblings among the Hamas, which may result in renewed violence.

After a series of mini-summits, the Arab world called a summit in Cairo on June 22, the first since the Kuwait crisis. The new Israeli foreign minister, David Levy, reacted to the summit by saying it would create unnecessary tensions in the region. He also appealed to Syria to join the peace process by compromising. "For this government, peace is the top priority," he said. But whether Israel will honour its own commitments remains to be seen. 

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