News Analysis: Netanyahus hold appears firm as he reaches midpoint of term

JERUSALEM — "Netanyahu and Mordechai trying to persuade Sharon," proclaimed the headline of the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.

An outsider completely unfamiliar with the peace process players would naturally assume from the story that Ariel Sharon is the prime minister and that two of his more moderate Cabinet members, named Netanyahu and Mordechai, are urging him to come to terms with the Clinton administration's proposal for a a redeployment from 13 percent of West Bank lands.

The outsider would assume, moreover, that there is no one in the Cabinet taking more moderate positions than Netanyahu and Mordechai. Or at any rate, no one who matters.

And indeed, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marks the second anniversary of his election victory this week, he can look with contempt at the pundits who predicted that as time passed, dissent among the moderates would weaken or even destroy his Likud-led coalition.

There are indeed relative hardliners and relative moderates within the coalition who are vying constantly over the drawn-out talks with Washington.

But it is not the self-proclaimed moderates of the Third Way Party, with four Knesset seats, nor the purported moderates of the Yisrael Ba'Aliyah Party, with eight, who are leading the leftward swing.

The real debate is conducted within the Likud itself, among the leading Likud ministers and Knesset members.

Indeed, the Third Way and Yisrael Ba'Aliyah, though committed in their election platforms to advancing the Oslo process, have been vacillating on issues of peace.

This week was significant because it was Netanyahu's midterm — a milestone that has promoted the question of how his continued hold on power might be affected by the new electoral law that went into effect for the 1996 elections.

Under one of the terms of that law, if a majority of Knesset members vote no-confidence in the government, they would in effect also force themselves out of office since they'd have to face new parliamentary elections along with a separate, direct vote for premier.

Political observers, seeking to understand the effects of the new law, believed that the motivation of small parties and individual Knesset members to toe the coalition line would wane as the Knesset term wore on.

The logic was that keeping one's seat — individually or collectively — becomes less important as the next election approaches.

As a consequence, according to this logic, coalition partners could be expected to begin hanging tougher against the prime minister as time passed.

But there is no evidence that this political theory is working in practice.

Even on his right, where threats and pressures on Netanyahu have been far more persistent than from his left, no one is anxious to abandon ship.

Granted, there is talk of a new rightist party being set up by religious and secular settler leaders if Netanyahu does eventually OK the redeployment.

But signals emanating from the National Religious Party, which has opposed a further redeployment, indicate that its leadership would in fact swallow a redeployment of 9 percent, 11 percent — or even, at the end of the day, 13 percent.

The NRP, say political observers, is not behaving like a movement seriously contemplating secession from the coalition.

Moreover, within the moderate wing of the government, this stay-put syndrome is more pronounced.

The Third Way, which on paper is the least hardline component of the coalition, seemed visibly to shrink back this week from its threat to leave the government unless there is a further West Bank withdrawal.

The party claimed last week it was ready to forgo its own piece of power in order to bring about a government of national unity.

But no sooner had the threat been issued than party leader Avigdor Kahalani, the minister of public security, shot it down.

And even the most dovish of the Third Way's four legislators, Yehuda Harel, took care to explain that the party's pressure for movement with the Palestinians did not entail "an ultimatum."

Plainly, the Third Way is less than confident of repeating its success at the ballot box next time around — which would explain its desire to postpone facing the voters for as long as politically possible.

Meanwhile, Yisrael Ba'Aliyah, the other supposed moderate weak link in the coalition, has become in recent weeks Netanyahu's most reliable ally.

The ill will that reportedly emerged last year between the two old personal friends, Netanyahu and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky, seems to have vanished completely.

Cynics say the premier's dangling the vacant Foreign Ministry portfolio before Sharansky's eyes has hastened the departure of such feelings.

Even now, though holding the relatively junior Trade Ministry portfolio, Sharansky is a permanent member of Netanyahu's Inner Cabinet, which also includes Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Sharon, the infrastructure minister.

After a meeting of the Inner Cabinet on Sunday night before the prime minister's departure for a four-day visit to China, Sharansky was quoted as accusing the United States of reneging on its commitment to let Israel be the sole arbiter of its own security needs.

Washington delivered this promise, according to Israel, in a side letter to the January 1997 Hebron Agreement in which former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher said it would be up to Israel to define the specified military locations to which its forces would redeploy under the Oslo accords.

This is the kind of hard talk that Netanyahu needs from his ministers at this time, when his negotiations about the redeployment with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her team are poised on the cusp of success or failure.

What he presumably did not want was Mordechai trumpeting later in the week, to a visiting group of French politicians, that there must be a double-digit pullback — this despite Sharon's insistence that anything more than 9 percent would be dangerous.