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Netanyahu Faces Rebellion Over Wye Peace Agreement

By Lee Hockstader
The Washington Post
HEBRON, Israeli-Occupied West Bank

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu '76 fought a rear guard battle Monday against the growing likelihood of early elections as an odd alliance of liberals, security hawks and religious parties aimed to topple his government in the fallout from the Middle East peace accord.

The noise generated by Israel's political upheaval nearly drowned out the latest spasm of sectarian violence - the murder of a Jewish settler in Hebron and, hours later, the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian man near a Jewish settlement outside Nablus.

Monday, the Israeli army clamped a general closure on Hebron, preventing Palestinians from leaving or entering the city.

Having renounced Netanyahu as their champion, Jewish West Bank settlers, including friends of the man murdered in Hebron, protested noisily against the land-for-security deal outside the premier's office in Jerusalem Monday night.

Slamming Netanyahu as a traitor and brandishing posters of him shaking hands with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the 200 or so protesters resembled those who railed against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for making territorial compromises with the Palestinians in the months before his 1995 assassination.

Netanyahu spent much of the day trying to assuage elements in his fracturing coalition opposed to the peace deal, which they believe hands the Palestinians a sizable chunk of land in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in return for empty promises.

He held lengthy meetings with disaffected members of his conservative coalition Cabinet and with representatives of the settlers' council, insisting the pact he signed Friday in Washington is the best possible deal under the circumstances. He also assured them he would continue expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank in spite of fierce Palestinian opposition and a standing appeal by the United States that he suspend such activity for the sake of the peace process.

Netanyahu's 17-member Cabinet is expected to approve the peace deal, perhaps as early as Thursday, and the pact is also likely to sail through the Knesset, Israel's parliament, with the support of the opposition Labor Party next week. Monday he easily survived a no-confidence motion on which few lawmakers bothered to vote.

But even as Netanyahu lobbied for his political future, the Knesset's law and constitution committee, by a 9-to-7 vote, passed a bill to dissolve the parliament and call new elections early next year. The bill is expected to come before the full parliament within two weeks, and analysts said it stands a good chance of winning a majority of the 120 members - not least because the Labor Party says its support for the peace deal does not extend to a general safety net for Netanyahu.

Dissidents within Netanyahu's coalition were discussing a mid-March election date, over a year before his term is scheduled to expire. Hard-liners were also hopeful that the turmoil of an electoral campaign might derail implementation of the peace agreement, which calls for a withdrawal from a further 13 percent of the West Bank in three phases over 12 weeks.

Although Netanyahu's political future looks tumultuous, it is by no means finished. Having moved toward the center by signing the accord, he could well win fresh elections if he is forced into them.