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Israel's Politicians Put Country Above Party, at Least for a Moment

December 23, 1988|HIRSCH GOODMAN | Hirsch Goodman, a veteran Middle East journalist, is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

There are numerous common areas of action for this government along the course of future diplomacy in the region. In January last year Yitzhak Shamir wrote a 16-page letter to George Shultz outlining his vision for the future. That letter brought Shultz back into the Middle East process after a long recess. In it Shamir reportedly made several critical points, including that he was prepared for sweeping transitional arrangements, leading to a final status agreement--a fundamental turnabout in Shamir's previously stated position. The prime minister also offered a somewhat convoluted explanation that he was not totally opposed to the concept of exchanging territory for peace.

The Americans (and Shimon Peres), who know that they have little to no chance of budging Shamir on the issue of an international conference, will concentrate on pushing him to keep to the word of his letter, starting with elections in the territories (which are not specifically mentioned in Shamir's letter). For the Americans this will represent progress toward a changing environment in which peace can be seriously discussed.

The prime minister will be able to explain away any progress that might be made in the context of autonomy arrangements. For Labor, this will be movement toward creating a bona fide Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate in the future. For the Palestinians, the process will be seen as the first stage in a transfer of authority and self-rule leading to an independent Palestinian state.

History has thrust four men--Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Arens--all with very different styles and political philosophies, together at a crucial point. Despite their differences, they could not be better suited to deal with current events. Arens, as the foreign minister, will be the point man in Israel's relations with the United States. He is a former ambassador to Washington and a former defense minister, and he understands the need for a healthy relationship. Arens will have far more influence over Shamir than Peres would have if he had stayed on as foreign minister. Now, as the finance minister, Peres is the only person with the authority to overhaul sensitive economic enterprises and deal with the kibbutzim in a serious way without being suspected of political vindictiveness.

The right men at the right time? History will judge. For now, it's about time that the optimists have a good day.

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