News Analysis: Can Netanyahu take the heat Israelis longing for reassurance

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Ariel Sharon's inclusion as infrastructure minister in the Israeli Cabinet this week, just in time for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trip to the United States, represented a major victory for Foreign Minister David Levy.

It was Levy's ultimatum, delivered before television cameras last week to a startled and embarrassed Netanyahu, that forced the prime minister to push the appointment through.

If Sharon were not made a minister before the premier left, Levy warned Knesset coalition partners that he would resign from the Foreign Ministry, a move that would have left the coalition in shambles.

An earlier threat by Levy, on June 18, the day the coalition was sworn in, forced Netanyahu to pledge to set up a new ministry to provide Sharon with a portfolio commensurate with his standing and ambitions.

Levy's ultimatums persuaded Netanyahu to twist his ministers' arms hard enough to secure an impressive collection of powers from their various departments that together will make up the new Ministry of National Infrastructures.

But Levy's role as Sharon's facilitator, while plainly enhancing Levy's own Cabinet status, does not necessarily foreshadow an alliance between these two experienced Likud ministers.

To the contrary, some believe, hard decisions on the peace process may soon put Sharon and Levy at odds as Netanyahu Cabinet members begin marking out their positions on the hawk-dove axis.

These observers point to Sharon's longtime foe, Science Minister Ze'ev "Benny" Begin, as the former defense minister's natural ally on the hawkish right.

Begin, son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, has already clashed with Netanyahu's tactic of pursuing indirect contacts with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

Those contacts are expected to be elevated shortly to the ministerial level with a meeting between Arafat and Levy.

Netanyahu himself, in talks with President Clinton this week and in meetings with other administration and congressional figures, was expected to reiterate his commitment to continue negotiations with the Palestinians and to implement the redeployment of Israeli forces in Hebron as required under existing agreements.

Sharon, for his part, persists in referring to Arafat as a mass murderer and unreconstructed terrorist.

He has called in the past for a thorough revision of the Hebron redeployment agreement, though more recently he made a point of stressing that binding agreements undertaken by the previous government must be honored.

In the complex web of political and personal relationships that connect and divide Cabinet members in the new government, the pragmatic line by Levy will likely receive strong support from another of Sharon's longtime foes, Finance Minister Dan Meridor.

While a close friend of Begin's, Meridor is considered significantly more moderate regarding the peace process with the Palestinians.

Meridor's seniority in the new administration was entrenched this past week, after the close support he received from Netanyahu in marathon budget deliberations that ended Sunday with a series of $1.6 billion in cuts in the government's 1997 budget.

Beyond the heat Netanyahu has taken from Levy over the Sharon appointment and beyond predictions of future tensions within the Cabinet, the question that remained unanswered concerned Netanyahu's capacity to perform well under pressure.

While Netanyahu himself claims that the upshot of the hectic period of coalition-building has been favorable for his own Likud Party — which holds only 32 of the coalition's 66 Knesset seats — the Israeli public has watched bemusedly as their new leader found himself reacting to other, more seasoned politicians rather than shaping his government himself.

There was, for instance, his effort to keep Meridor out of a top job. Netanyahu had wanted the governor of the Bank of Israel, Jacob Frenkel, as his minister of finance — but he had to back off and name Meridor amid an outcry from within his own Likud Party.

Similarly, his determination to keep Sharon out of the top Cabinet slots — defense and finance — was only partially successful. The newly created Infrastructure Ministry, with its vast responsibility, will be one of the most powerful portfolios.

Among the roles handed to Sharon will be to conduct the crucial negotiations over water rights under a permanent-status arrangement with the Palestinians, a particularly disturbing development in the view of the Palestinian negotiators.

It is the question of Netanyahu's ability to perform under pressure, rather than the details of the story itself, that has given Israelis pause in the matter of what is called "Nannygate" — the news accounts this past week of the angry dismissal by Netanyahu's wife, Sara, of their children's nanny.

In particular, the assertions made by the Prime Minister's Office in a statement to the media that the nanny had been unbalanced, and that the Shin Bet security service had wanted to remove her, triggered serious misgivings throughout the political community.

The second assertion was flatly denied by Shin Bet sources. The first seems wholly unsustained.

Do they reflect the prime minister's own overhasty reaction to the unflattering media accounts of his wife's behavior?

If so, they invoke memories of his television appearance in 1993, when he volunteered that he had been having an adulterous affair and accused Levy and his supporters of plotting to blackmail him over it with a video.

Israelis are still digesting the change of generation and of style that their new prime minister represents.

The Netanyahu family faults the media for prying, but behind the style of journalism being practiced by the Israeli media, there is a public longing to be reassured — to feel confident that the man elected to worry for the state is up to the job.