May 21, 1998
‘I Am a Coalition of One’
Netanyahu has little to fear on the domesticfront -- either from politicians or public opinion
Regarding the domestic political pressures thatBinyamin Netanyahu faces in his decision-making on the peace process,the prime minister himself probably summed it up best in the "Israelat 50" interview he gave to Newsweek: "I am a coalition ofone."
The prime minister may have to contend with theClinton administration, he may have one half-opened eye on what'sgoing on with the Palestinians, but he has little to fear on thedomestic front -- either from politicians or public opinion.
Not long ago, it was believed that the right-wingfaction in the government -- mainly the National Religious Party, butalso hard-liners in the Likud -- was constraining Netanyahu frommaking too many concessions to the Palestinians. The prime ministerhas reportedly made this case time and again to his Americaninterlocutors.
But this argument went out the window recentlywhen Netanyahu initiated negotiations to bring the Moledet (Homeland)Party into his coalition. Moledet 's platform for peace with thePalestinians is to "transfer" them all out of the West Bank and Gaza.The PM can hardly complain of right-wing pressures when he is tryingto co-opt the most ultranationalist party in the Knesset.
Still, as word came from Netanyahu's circles thathe was moving closer to accepting the American proposal for a secondIsraeli redeployment from the West Bank, forces on the right werethreatening to bring him down.
Aharon Domb, head of the settlers' YESHA (Judea,Samaria and Gaza) Council, said, "It turns out that the primeminister is moving in the direction the Americans are leading him,and if he harms the settlements or Israel's national interests, in myestimate, he won't have a government."
Transport Minister Shaul Yahalom of the NationalReligious Party warned, "If this arrangement means that any of thesettlements are isolated or threatened or limited in their ability togrow, then we will not support it."
But what option does the right have? Twice before,right-wing leaders have given back territories to the Arabs --Menachem Begin in the Camp David Accord and Netanyahu in the HebronAgreement -- and both times, they won their Knesset majoritiesdespite considerable opposition within their own ranks. Support fromthe Labor Party made up the difference. Opposition leader Ehud Barakhas pledged that if Netanyahu makes a credible peace offering to thePalestinians, Labor again will provide the "safety net" to neutralizeright-wing defectors.
And if the rightists in the Cabinet organize toscotch the second redeployment before it ever gets to the Knesset,Netanyahu can turn to the Labor Party to join him in a national unitygovernment -- a national unity government for peace, which would beterrifically popular with the public and difficult for Labor to turndown even if it wanted to.
Ultimately, bringing down Netanyahu means callingnew elections, and the right wing has no candidate who approaches himin popularity. Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon is leading thecharge by the right, but he is pushing 70 and likely has too extremean image to attract the all-important electoral center. The primeminister is even less threatened by his opposition on the left.Barak's poll ratings are going steadily down, and he now trailsNetanyahu consistently by about 7 percent. As Barak tries desperatelyto portray himself as a centrist and distance himself from Meretz,his politics have come to seem indistinguishable from Netanyahu's.When the prime minister was refusing to withdraw from 13 percent ofthe West Bank, as the Americans and Palestinians demanded, Barak saidthe he would refuse, too.
"As an opposition leader, he's pathetic," sayspolitical commentator Sylvie Keshet. "He ought to listen to RubyRivlin, who is the Likud's comedian in the Knesset. Rivlin has begunusing Labor's own slogan: 'With Barak we will win!'"
As for the Israeli street, it's as quiet as aShabbat afternoon in Jerusalem. Demonstrations by Peace Now and otherleft-wing groups can hardly attract more than a couple of hundredwell-behaved people to chant -- with audible lack of conviction --"Bibi go home." Peace Now leader Mussi Raz says, lamentingly,"Unfortunately, you can only get masses of people out to protestafter the violence breaks out, not before. That's the way it wasduring the Lebanon War, that's the way it was during theintifada, andthat's the way it is now."
Last weekend's riots by Palestinians, in which atleast five of them were shot to death by Israeli army troops, didn'tseem to faze most Israelis. The majority of the Israeli publicdoesn't get too worked up about politics unless Israelis are beingkilled. A second major concern of theirs is that the country'srelations with the United States not be harmed.
There has been relatively little terror onNetanyahu's watch. For all the tremors in the prime minister'srelations with the Clinton administration, they remain fundamentallystable. Since Netanyahu is giving most citizens what they want, andsince there is no viable alternative to him, the prime minister canlikely maneuver as he pleases on the second redeployment andafterward, with no serious political worries on the domesticfront.
If, however, the bloodshed crosses the border intoIsrael, and if Netanyahu finds himself frozen out by the UnitedStates -- say, by an American withdrawal from the peace process --then he will no longer have such an easy life at home.