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Center May Give Way as Israelis Attempt to Assess the Rioting

December 29, 1987|SHAI FELDMAN | Shai Feldman is a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. He is on leave with the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington.

The rioting in the West Bank and Gaza may bring about important changes in the Israeli domestic political scene. Such changes would grow out of the Israelis' initial surprise at the courage and the intensity manifested by the Palestinian rioters, at the solidarity expressed through strikes and demonstrations by Israel's own 700,000 Arab citizens and at the volume of the external reaction to the measures that have been adopted to regain control.

Many Israelis were at first angered by the rioting Palestinians, and demanded that all steps be taken to re-establish order. Within the two major political parties, the centrist Labor Party and the rightist Likud, this favored leaders advocating a steady hand: Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

But, once order has been re-established, increasing Israeli soul-searching can be expected. This is likely to result in a greater realization that something must be done about the Palestinian time bomb. Israeli politics will thus be polarized, with much movement from the center to both the right and the left.

In both major parties such movement will weaken the champions of the status quo and strengthen those who have demanded that something dramatic be done to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Within Likud, Shamir is likely to lose ground in favor of former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. The latter is an advocate of meeting the Palestinian demands through the establishment of a Palestinian state in place of King Hussein's regime in Jordan. Many supporters of the plan hope that it may allow Israel to export to the Jordan River's East Bank the Palestinians who are currently residing in the West Bank and Gaza. Likud activists may also want to strengthen Sharon as a hedge against a loss of votes to the party's more rightist competitors--the Tehiya (Revival) party led by Geula Cohen, and Meir Kahane's Kach.

With Labor, Rabin's long adherence to status-quo policies is likely to weaken his position, just as the 1973 Yom Kippur War brought about the demise of Prime Minister Golda Meir. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the party leader, has made every effort to move the peace process forward in recent years. He is in a position to gain.

But Peres faces two difficulties. The first is to find a way of presenting the riots as evidence of what may happen if his policy is not adopted, without at the same time seeming to side with the rioters. His second is more substantive. For years Peres has been advocating the Jordanian option--namely, the resolution of the Palestinian problem through an accommodation with King Hussein. But so far Hussein has been unwilling to enter direct negotiations with Israel. Moreover, during the latest two weeks of Palestinian demonstrations, Hussein seemed largely irrelevant. This will weaken Peres' case in favor of those betting on a more Palestinian-oriented deal, inside as well as outside his party. Israel's smaller, more left-leaning, parties advocating a Palestinian-centered solution--like Shinui (Change), Ratz (Civil Rights) and Mapam (United Workers Party)--are likely to gain ground. Labor will also suffer considerable losses among the increasingly radicalized Israeli Arabs.

It is too early to tell which of Israel's two major parties will gain more from the movement away from the center. General elections are scheduled for the fall of 1988. Their outcome will be affected by a number of factors, including the positions taken by the other parties to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.

Jordan's reaction to the Palestinian riots is typically confused. Clearly, televised images of the highly agitated Palestinians must have decreased King Hussein's appetite for negotiating the return of the West Bank to his control. But two threats to Hussein's regime may propel him to negotiate on the Palestinians' behalf: The first is the danger that the absence of progress will increase the clout of Israelis calling for a resolution of the Palestinian problem at the Hashemite Kingdom's expense; the second is that growing militancy in the West Bank and Gaza, now resulting in the radicalization of Israeli Arabs, would soon also lead to extremism among the Hashemite Kingdom's own Palestinian majority. For Hussein, the costs of the status quo may finally outweigh the risks of movement.

Therein lies the connection between the Israeli and Jordanian domestic scenes. Within the former, the principal obstacle facing Peres and his Labor followers has been their inability to demonstrate that Hussein is serious about making a deal. By publicly calling for direct negotiations, Hussein would have the ability to influence the outcome of the Israeli internal debate.

Equally important is the Palestinians' own role. For more than 20 years the Palestine Liberation Organization's all-or-nothing position has gained little for the Palestinians. This month Israel has demonstrated once again its unwillingness to yield to terrorism or riots.

This may lead Palestinians to conclude that their tragedy must be resolved through negotiations and to press the PLO's leadership to adopt a more constructive posture. Since Hussein has so far refused to negotiate a deal for the Palestinians without the PLO's blessing, progress in resolving the dispute requires that such a blessing be finally granted. Armed with such a blessing, Hussein may finally afford to accept a framework for direct negotiations. Israel is unlikely to reject such a framework.

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