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Back To The Wall, Bibi Mulls Options

Back To The Wall, Bibi Mulls Options

With his back to the wall in his dealings with Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly weighing the possibility of broadening his government to give him more flexibility in anticipation of meeting American demands.

The reports are based in part on right-wing elements in Netanyahu’s coalition government that are upset with the prime minister’s decision to work towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst and co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Web site

In addition, he said, there are members of the opposition centrist Kadima Party led by Shaul Mofaz, the former defense minister, who are "lobbying Kadima to join the government now that Netanyahu has accepted a two-state solution."

But Alpher said that because Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister and Kadima Party chair, is not anxious to join the coalition, Mofaz "might take some members with him and move to Likud." Alpher noted that a proposed law in Israel would make it easier for him to do that.

He hastened to add that he does not foresee anyone "leaving the coalition to make room for Kadima, and I don’t believe Kadima would reopen discussions about joining the coalition."

"So I don’t see it happening," Alpher said.

But with the specter of a fraud indictment hanging over Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, which would force his resignation, Netanyahu may well be looking ahead to moves that would bolster his coalition. He is well aware that his government fell in 1999 when right-wing parties pulled out over concessions to the Palestinians regarding Hebron. He does not want to see history repeat itself.

Word of a possible government shakeup came as Defense Minister Ehud Barak arrived in Washington Tuesday for talks aimed at easing U.S. pressure for a total settlement freeze that includes "natural growth," and amid growing speculation about what comes next for an administration that has committed itself to rapid progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

After a four-hour meeting in New York, reports indicate that while Barak and George Mitchell, the U.S. special Middle East envoy, may have narrowed differences between the two allies, they did not conclude any agreements on issues such as a U.S. demand for a complete settlement freeze.

According to reports, the Netanyahu government is proposing a three-to six-month halt in settlement building, coupled with confidence-building gestures by Arab nations and the Palestinians.

While most analysts here predict continuing U.S. efforts to improve the environment for negotiations by pressing Israel on settlements and the Palestinians on security and an end to incitement, there is a widespread expectation that sweeping new U.S. initiatives are unlikely.

Edward Walker, a former State Department official and ambassador to Israel, said the Netanyahu government will try to work with the administration here on issues like "reducing the number of checkpoints, opening up more cities to the Palestinian security forces and finding some way to agree on settlements. I’m certain the administration does not want to wind up in a shooting match with the Israeli government, especially since Bibi has responded to some of their concerns."

But he said the administration’s "credibility is on the line" on the question of settlements and its room for compromise is limited.

Walker predicted "we won’t see a full-blown U.S. game plan in the near future. Sooner or later, they’ll have to press for a resumption of negotiations, but there’s not much they can do now."

Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, said that the press of other world crises — including the "changing situation in Iran and the fact things in Afghanistan are at a critical point" — will keep the administration from offering sweeping new peace proposals.

"Looking from the outside, I’d say they have a disposition to solve this conflict," he said. "But right now the issue doesn’t have the same urgency for them."

To a degree, Washington’s next steps depend on how Netanyahu responds to continuing U.S. pressure — and if and how he reconfigures a governing coalition that has left him precious little room for maneuver.

Judith Kipper, director of Middle East Programs for the Institute of World Affairs, said a Likud-Kadima coalition "may be what Netanyahu would like to do, but I think Kadima would have a very hard time [joining] such a coalition as long as Lieberman remains part of it."

The Israeli press reported that at a recent meeting, French president Nicolas Sarkozy encouraged Netanyahu to "get rid" of Lieberman and replace him with Livni, Israel’s former foreign minister.

This leak, combined with reports that Netanyahu is considering broadening his right-leaning government, suggests that "Netanyahu is leaving the door open for a shakeup," according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

He said Netanyahu might opt to broaden his government whether or not the U.S. and Israel reach an agreement on Israeli-Palestinian peace issues. Steinberg said Israel might have to "move to the left" to reach an accord with the U.S., or form a national unity government to withstand American pressure if the two sides failed to agree.

Several American Jewish leaders believe that Israel and the U.S. will be able to finesse their differences on settlements, at least for the time being. That would turn attention to the Palestinians and what peace gestures they might make.

Israel reportedly would like to broaden the scope of renewed negotiations with the Palestinians by bringing in the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Saudi Arabians "to make it easier for the Palestinians to make the hard decisions," according to Alpher.

Any agreement arising from those talks would then be made "under the rubric of the Arab peace initiative," Alpher said, adding that he is doubtful this would happen.

Stephen Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum who recently met with Palestinian officials, said "this is a very active time" in terms of discussions about how to move the peace process forward.

He pointed out that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was not responsive to Ehud Olmert’s offer of more than 93 percent of Palestinian territories, in negotiations last year, in part because Fatah "hadn’t resolved internal problems" with Hamas.

Hamas, regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and Europe, controls the Gaza Strip and is committed to Israel’s destruction.

Cohen said Abbas has dealt with the problem by bypassing Hamas and winning support from the Egyptians and Saudis, suggesting that Abbas may be more flexible in future talks.

Olmert had proposed placing Jerusalem’s Holy Basin — the areas containing the Old City and surrounding holy sites — under Divine sovereignty and having it administered by a consortium of Saudis, Jordanians, Americans, Israelis and Palestinians.

In addition, he proposed offering the Palestinians 93.5 to 93.7 percent of the Palestinian territories, along with a land swap of 5.8 percent and safe passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. And the Palestinian refugee issue would be resolved by permitting a small number of Palestinians into Israel as a "humanitarian gesture."

After Olmert revealed his offer last month, Livni said through a spokesman that she disapproved of the offer. And although Abbas said he would like peace talks to resume from where they left off, Cohen said the Palestinians do not expect it to be offered by Netanyahu.

Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.

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