Clinton may save Wye or Likud coalition, but not both

JERUSALEM — President Clinton's visit this weekend to Israel and the Gaza Strip may save the faltering Wye agreement. But in doing so, it could also bring an end to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

Alternately, Clinton may find himself rebuffed by his Israeli hosts. Such treatment of Clinton may prove the salvation of Netanyahu's battered and tottering regime. But then, Wye will be dead.

These appeared to be the two most likely scenarios as hundreds of U.S. officials and security people descended on Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip this week to prepare for what was to be a historic odyssey by Clinton — but what threatens to become a strange and sad voyage.

Clinton is set to arrive tomorrow night for a three-day visit.

The Israeli domestic stage was set Monday night when the Knesset, on the verge of voting no confidence in Netanyahu and ending his rule, resolved to give him a two-week respite.

The vote will now be held on Monday, Dec. 21, several days after Clinton's departure from the region.

If the hard-line right believes that the premier is going ahead with Wye, it will provide the votes to topple him.

But if the U.S. president is forced to leave empty-handed with the Wye agreement effectively frozen, then the hard-liners will relent and Netanyahu's nationalist-religious coalition will live on — though Israel's relations with Washington will presumably sink to a new low.

A third possibility is less likely — but more hopeful.

Netanyahu, trapped by the conflicting forces of his coalition and exhausted by his own efforts to keep the coalition together, may use the president's visit as a catalyst to create a broad-based government with the Labor Party.

According to some political insiders, a national unity government is much more likely than either Likud or Labor, in their various public statements, would have the public believe.

Their sources hint at ongoing contacts between Netanyahu and Labor leader Ehud Barak, despite Barak's purported rejection of all talk of unity.

They point to the still-potent influence of Labor's former leader, Shimon Peres, who never tires of advocating unity as the only means for ensuring progress in the peace process.

They say that Netanyahu's failed attempt this week to bring former Foreign Minister David Levy back into the coalition fold was in fact a first step toward creating a unity government.

Whichever of these scenarios eventually pans out, this much is already clear: Clinton's mission to save the Israeli-Palestinian peace will be overshadowed to a large extent by the president's sally into the heart of Israeli domestic politics.

There seems no escaping Henry Kissinger's shrewd observation, made more than two decades ago that Israel has no foreign policy — only domestic politics.

Opposition to the president's hands-on involvement has grown inside Netanyahu's coalition in recent weeks — in tandem with an ominous increase in West Bank violence.

A bitter dispute between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the categories of prisoners to be released under Wye has triggered daily demonstrations in the West Bank, many of which escalate into confrontations between Palestinian youths and Israeli troops.

The stoning and savage beating of an Israeli soldier near Ramallah last week, filmed by television crews called in by the Palestinians in advance, triggered a wave of shock and revulsion throughout Israel.

Netanyahu seized on it to announce a halt in the Wye implementation process.

On Wednesday, Palestinians in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem staged violent protests and a general strike to mark the 11th anniversary of the 1987 to 1993 intifada.

The demonstrators, continuing days of clashes with Israeli troops, demanded the release of Palestinian activists held in Israeli jails. Meanwhile, Palestinian officials said some 2,000 prisoners are participating in a hunger strike that began more than a week ago to press their demand for freedom.

Over the past week, Israelis traveling on West Bank roads have been stoned, and, in several cases, shot at by Palestinians.

An Israeli girl was lightly injured after Palestinians stoned the car she was traveling in near Tekoa. The driver fired shots in the air to disperse the stone throwers.

A border-police officer was lightly wounded by glass fragments at the Kalandia refugee camp near Ramallah on Tuesday when his patrol jeep was stoned. An army spokesman said soldiers dispersed the rioters with tear gas and rubber bullets.

In Hebron, a mother and child narrowly escaped injury when a building block was thrown at their car.

And some 20 Palestinians were wounded in weekend clashes.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon informed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Washington that due to the violence, Israel would not be implementing the second stage of the Wye redeployment, scheduled for next week.

Clinton and Albright could take some comfort in the fact that Netanyahu and his aides declined to endorse Sharon's statement that the redeployment would not go ahead.

And Netanyahu himself was quickly back bobbing and weaving between hard-liners and moderates.

"We will carry out the agreement," he told the Knesset on Monday night, "if the Palestinians carry out their part. At present they are defaulting on every single provision."

The premier's comments came after he engineered the delay in a Knesset vote that threatened to topple his government.

The reprieve came with the help of one of his coalition members, the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, which requested that a Knesset vote on a bill calling for early elections be considered a no-confidence motion.

Under Knesset rules, the group's request put off Monday's Knesset vote by at least one week.

But the Labor Party, which submitted the bill calling for new elections, agreed to a delay of an additional week in order to avoid holding the vote during Clinton's visit.

As for Clinton, he would be "a welcome guest," the prime minister told a television interviewer later Monday evening.

But, asked the reporter, "according to today's headlines, you told the cabinet yesterday: `If he wants to come, let him come; if he doesn't want to come, let him not come.' That's hardly the way to speak of a welcome guest."

"Don't believe what you read in the newspapers," muttered the premier.