Will Likud and Netanyahu seek middle ground?

JERUSALEM (AP) — If Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory in Israel’s elections for prime minister is confirmed, how hard-line will his government be?
Campaign statements by the Likud Party leader threatened Palestinians with closing PLO headquarters in Jerusalem and building more Jewish settlements in Palestinian-run areas. But Netanyahu has a reputation of being a pragmatist, and some believe he will be far more moderate than his rhetoric would suggest.
“There is going to be a big divide and struggle within the Likud between the pragmatists and the ideologues in the party,” said David Kimche, head of Israel’s Council on Foreign Relations.
“Netanyahu will try to purge the extreme ideologues in order to continue the peace process.”
That struggle appeared to be under way Thursday even though Netanyahu hadn’t claimed victory, awaiting the count of the soldiers’ vote that could confirm his slim lead over incumbent Shimon Peres.
Netanyahu’s former chief of staff and No. 3 on Likud’s parliament slate, Rafael Eitan, proposed renegotiating any part of the Israel-PLO accords “not in keeping with our national interests.”
But a leading Palestinian official, Hisham Abdel Razek, warned that any attempt by a Netanyahu government to back out of those accords “will bring about a cycle of bloodshed.”
Israel’s commitments in those accords include pledges to withdraw from the West Bank city of Hebron, where 450 Jewish settlers live among 94,000 Palestinians, and to negotiate Palestinian demands for statehood and the status of Jerusalem, which Netanyahu has refused to do.
Dore Gold, Netanyahu’s top foreign policy adviser, suggested that Netanyahu would not adopt the hard-line policies of those around him. He said a Likud government will “not launch a new line of policy” that would conflict with the agreements on Palestinian self-rule.
“The continuation of the peace process is a strategic choice that will continue under a Likud government if a Likud government is formed,” Gold told The Associated Press. “The difference is not over strategic choice, but the best way to achieve it.
Netanyahu drew his strength from anger and frustration about suicide bomb attacks that killed 63 people. His answer was to promise that personal security would take precedence over visionary peacemaking and handshakes on the White House lawn.
He vowed to get tough with Yasser Arafat and make the Palestinian leader honor commitments to rein in militants. If Arafat failed to comply, he said, Israeli security forces would have a mandate to hunt down terrorists anywhere — even in PLO-run areas.
Joseph Alpher, a political scientist who helped arrange a recent dialogue between Jewish settlers and Palestinian officials, said Netanyahu was “pragmatic, worldly and aware of the sensitivities” on the Arab side.
Much will depend on the partners chosen for a coalition.
The narrowness of the margin between Netanyahu’s Likud and Peres’ Labor parties has prompted speculation about a possible coalition of the two largest parties.
Some prominent Palestinians including Hanan Ashrawi, a leading intellectual and one-time Arafat spokeswoman, also were inclined to take Netanyahu’s campaign statements with a grain of salt.
“The right wing does not have a free hand,” Ashrawi said in an interview. “Also, I always make a distinction between campaign rhetoric and cold, reasoned-out policy.”