Threats set catch-22

Israel has starved for leadership since Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister 19 months ago. Like U.S. President Bill Clinton, Netanyahu tends to govern in the footsteps of his people. But the events of this week have made it impossible for him to govern at all.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister David Levy left the government and took his five-member party with him. Netanyahu’s coalition of rightist parties was reduced to a one-seat majority in Israel’s 120-seat parliament. Worse things have happened; Israel’s previous Labor government passed the 1993 Oslo peace accords by a one-vote margin. Then, the idea that Israel must coexist with its Arab neighbors and its Palestinian minority united Israel’s liberals.
Today, the Oslo accords divide the conservative government. Because Netanyahu has never offered a concrete alternative to them, his government has never been united on what to do. The conservative Likud party and its coalition partners agree only that Oslo is bad for the Jews. Israel’s government is a family embarking on a vacation knowing only that, when they’re done driving, they want to be far from home but not at the Grand Canyon.
So without the positive ideals of the Oslo accords, a one-seat majority will have an almost impossible time taking any action at all. That would suit many of Netanyahu’s allies — they’ll accept an uncomfortable status quo rather than risk an uncertain future. The danger is that if only one member of the governing coalition demands action, whether in support of or opposition to Oslo, the government could fall.
And that is the predicament Netanyahu now faces. His razor-thin majority makes him vulnerable to the political blackmail of any single member of his coalition. The United States, Israel’s Arab neighbors and the Palestinian Authority are demanding progress toward Oslo’s goals. If Netanyahu moves forward, any of several hard-line religious parties will surely leave the coalition. The prime minister can win domestic points by standing up to the United States and the Arabs, and Netanyahu has made an art of blaming the Palestinians for their impatience.
But his own defense minister yesterday joined the chorus demanding decisive action to further the peace process. Yitzhak Mordechai threatened to resign if new troop withdrawals weren’t made by March. His one vote could topple Netanyahu in a parliamentary no-confidence vote. Fellow cabinet member Yitzhak Levy, the transportation chief, responded by threatening to resign if any more troops are withdrawn. Netanyahu, in turn, promised to propose a time-table for army pullouts but indefinitely postponed their implementation.
Netanyahu is going nowhere, and fast. The events of this week show that he has very little nowhere left. His is a government incapable of action on the one issue most important to the life of his country. Israelis deserve leadership capable of making at least some decision on the future of the Jewish state and the status of the Palestinian people. Nothing short of new elections can give Israel a government capable of governing.