Author:Album, Andrew

Racked by a rebellion within his ruling Likud Party, fractious coalition partners and pressure from the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu is under pressure.

The resignation of Foreign Minister David Levy in January, who left the government and took his five member Gesher faction into opposition, has left Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu looking increasingly vulnerable. His divided coalition has a wafer thin majority, commanding just 61 votes in the 120 member Knesset. One more departure and it will be dependent on the extremist Moledet party to keep it in power.

That may come sooner rather than later, with Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai threatening to quit if substantial progress is not made on implementing the long delayed next phase of the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank. Added to Netanyahu's woes are the possibility of right wing members of his administration deserting him if he implements such a retreat and the real possibility of the Likud either splitting or one of its members challenging Netanyahu for the leadership.

If all of that was not enough, Netanyahu also has the Americans breathing down his neck, impatient for a resumption of dialogue with the increasingly disillusioned leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu continues to assure the Americans, as he did at his 18 December meeting in Paris with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that he will push through a decision, in the next couple of weeks, to withdraw from 10 per cent of the West Bank.

The reason for the delay, claim sources close to the Israeli Prime Minister, has been the need to ensure that the budget was voted through on 31 December. The last thing that Netanyahu wanted, they say, was to be blackmailed by coalition members, especially given that the budget could be voted down by a simple majority of those present in parliament, rather than an absolute majority within the 120 member assembly.

Most members of the Likud accept that further concessions are inevitable. Even hard-line Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon recently declared that "defining the Palestinian entity as a state is a foregone conclusion and it won't be long before the Palestinians declare an independent state even if Israel opposes it."

The problem is that some of the nationalist parties within Netanyahu's coalition find this too much to stomach. So, whilst Sharon and Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai work on competing maps...

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