Wednesday's headlines declared otherwise, but the final countdown has begun. The hullabaloo surrounding the eviction of the house in Hebron reveals that Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition partners sense that elections can't be far off.
While Netanyahu confidently claims he won't call early elections, his government is losing control. Likud ministers and MKs were quick to show their solidarity with the settlers in Hebron, and the defense minister wasted no time in sending the police's Special Patrol Unit to evict the invaders before Passover. Meanwhile, Likud ministers swiftly slammed Defense Minister Ehud Barak, conveniently playing down the prime minister's role in authorizing the eviction.
The move surprised both the settlers and senior Likud ministers. In Tuesday night's special meeting, ministers Moshe Ya'alon and Benny Begin offered a compromise: The settlers would leave the house and the army would seize it until the legality of the purchase was clarified.
Ya'alon was under the impression that the eviction had been postponed, especially after the State Prosecutor's Office declared that the house should be evacuated by April 25. Barak surprised Ya'alon by telling Netanyahu yesterday morning that he had decided on an immediate eviction.
Netanyahu was quick to declare his commitment to the rule of law, but in the same breath he said he would legalize three illegal outposts by connecting them to existing settlements. Still, Likud ministers from Limor Livnat to Ya'alon wasted no time in attacking Barak; Ya'alon said the defense minister had manipulated Netanyahu. Barak associates countered by accusing Ya'alon of "very peculiar behavior."
The Netanyahu government had hitherto functioned in relative harmony. Those days are over, it appears.
The controversy is partly personal: Barak and Ya'alon hate each other. The two choose diametrically opposed positions on all fronts, from the West Bank to Iran. Ya'alon says Barak launches clashes with the settlers to raise his profile, while laying on the rhetoric about the rule of law. Barak says the fear of right-winger Moshe Feiglin influences the Likud leaders' judgment.
The problem is that the legal problems with the settlers won't go away. Barak promised the High Court of Justice to empty several large apartment buildings in Beit El by May 1, while Netanyahu said yesterday he would seek a way to legalize them. And the Migron problem is yet to be solved.
Netanyahu is definitely worried about social protests breaking out again, not to mention the law on the ultra-Orthodox serving in the army and the problems with the annual budget. But his most pressing political problem might be in Judea and Samaria. He, of all people, must remember well that last time around, in 1999, his downfall came after the settlers lost faith in him.
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