Israels government on brink of collapse

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JERUSALEM — President Clinton's visit here this week spelled increasing trouble for Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Only a day after Clinton departed, Netanyahu came to realize that his chances of continuing as prime minister were growing dim.

Wednesday he announced that unless the Knesset supports his delay of the Wye peace agreement Monday, he would resign and appeal directly to the Israeli people in new elections.

Either way, the peace process is in limbo.

It's unclear whether the American attacks on Iraq this week will have any effect on Netanyahu's survival.

Netanyahu's government started crumbling this week. Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, a close ally, announced his resignation Tuesday — and Netanyahu's defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, hinted that he might join with the opposition in calling for new elections.

Meanwhile, Clinton returned home to an ever clearer indication of impeachment. But he might have won a short reprieve due to the bombing of Iraq.

Ostensibly, Clinton came for a 3-day Mideast visit to observe the Palestinian National Council meet in Gaza and repeal clauses in its charter calling for Israel's destruction.

But the Israeli media, describing Clinton's visit to Gaza as a milestone in the annals of Palestinian nationalism, made comparisons with momentous events in the history of Zionism — the First Zionist Congress and the Balfour Declaration among them.

Netanyahu put his own spin on Clinton's visit.

His spokesman noted that Palestinian officials, with the entire world watching, met Netanyahu's demand by annulling clauses in their charter calling for Israel's destruction.

And Netanyahu's spokesman also noted that the prime minister made no new concessions to Clinton and succeeded in postponing the next redeployment in the West Bank, which was supposed to take place today.

Many Israeli observers are interpreting those successes as only short-lived tactical triumphs. Taking a longer view, they say the Clinton visit has resulted in serious and lasting setbacks both for Netanyahu and for Israel.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu was hoping his stance against continuing with the Wye agreement would push hardliners in his coalition to support him and not carry out their earlier threats to side with the Labor-led opposition in calling for early elections — an action that already is scheduled for Monday.

However, rumblings among the more moderate elements in his coalition are already discernible.

Defense Minister Mordechai, who finds himself increasingly outflanked by the tough-talking Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, is saying he will reconsider the state of the government.

Mordechai and the relatively moderate Third Way Party, another coalition partner, have yet to say how they feel about the virtual collapse of the Wye accords.

Netanyahu's veiled threat to take the initiative of calling early elections was perhaps intended to whip shaky coalition members back into line so that the Likud leader can regroup and carry on.

But it could also mean that Netanyahu has come to believe, after a hard-headed assessment of the government's inherent weakness, that the end is near.

Either way, the prime minister is now clearly determined to head off any challenge against his leadership from the right-wing national camp.

Whether he stays in office or seeks new elections, he will project himself as the leader who refused to give ground to the Palestinians, despite intensive, almost public pressure from no less a figure than the president of the United States.

Where does all this leave the peace process?

Despite brave attempts by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to claim some progress during the president's three days in the region, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are making no such pretense.

Even with the move to annul the charter, Israel is flatly refusing to carry out any further redeployments until the Palestinian Authority carries out further obligations — including the confiscation of weapons, the elimination of anti-Israel rhetoric from schoolbooks, ending incitement and retracting the threat to declare statehood unilaterally in May.

For their part, Palestinian officials are saying those demands reflect nothing more than Netanyahu's desire to survive next week's Knesset session.

As Clinton flew home to face his own domestic battles, it appeared more likely that there would be renewed violent confrontations than any further progress in implementing the Wye accord in the weeks ahead.

And as far as the future of the Netanyahu government is concerned, there was a telling moment in Clinton's schedule before leaving the region Tuesday.

After the summit with Netanyahu and Arafat, Clinton and his family visited Bethlehem and Masada. From there they went to Ben-Gurion Airport, where the president held separate meetings on the tarmac with Netanyahu and another Israeli politician — opposition leader Ehud Barak of the Labor Party.

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