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Necessary and Unreachable : The paradox is that to keep Mideast negotiations alive, Israeli leaders are fighting a mini-war in Lebanon.

April 21, 1996|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz, author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier" (Simon & Schuster), is a staff contributor to the New Yorker

JERUSALEM — It's been quite a year for Israel. The prime minister assassinated; suicide bombers striking everywhere, and now another war in Lebanon. This is how we pursue peace in the Middle East. The assassinated prime minister famously said, "We shall negotiate as if there were no terror, and we shall fight terror as if there were no negotiations." In fact, the opposite is true: Israel is negotiating because there was and is terror; and is fighting terror in order to retain the political clout to pursue negotiations. In a place with as tangled a web of history as this, no one action, no one pronouncement, stands alone. Everything is contextual. Everything is connected.

And the context today is the Israeli elections. Elections are the key to understanding the code. Hezbollah's Katyusha rocket attacks have been growing more bold, it is true, but the recent shelling of Kiryat Shemona in northern Israel, which provoked the current exacerbated conflict, was not the first. Hezbollah missiles have, during the past month or so, fallen beyond the borders of the so-called security zone--the legal battlefield for the continuing mini-war between Israel and Hezbollah--and received only perfunctory responses.

This shelling is part of a strategy among Islamic fundamentalists and, perhaps, Syrian President Hafez Assad to undermine the Labor Party government and thereby destroy the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Labor Party leaders, now fighting for the right to continue governing and to continue the peace talks, have gradually come to believe that Hezbollah's provocation is such that Labor cannot win the election unless it shows Israelis it is strong and willing to fight for Israel's security. (Besides, every electorate on Earth loves a war--as long as its side is winning.)

Given this tough and painful election, it seemed particularly useful for Prime Minister Shimon Peres to fight--though the bloody accident that killed more than 75 civilians at a U.N. compound on Thursday has called even that logic into question. But Peres had decided to wage this war; though he has spent a large part of his 50-year public career in Israel's defense ministry, he is seen as weak by many Israelis. He is not Yitzhak Rabin. His opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, sensing a potentially popular war led by Peres, immediately began praising the oddly named "Operation Grapes of Wrath," while setting forth unlikely goals it must achieve--for example, the annihilation of Hezbollah and a promise by Syria not to revive the group. Like any smart politician, while feigning support for Peres' war, Netanyahu was laying the groundwork for labeling any outcome a failure. He is lying in wait like a lazy cat, licking his chops publicly and waiting for the Labor government to make a fatal mistake. Meanwhile, he is never subtle. "We support the government's use of force, finally," he said early last week.

Indeed, in Israel, negotiating is tantamount to weakness, and use of force equals strength--though Israel arrived at the negotiating table with its muscles flexed, and has been negotiating with the Palestinians from a position of strength. One reason those talks have gone as far as they have is because Israel is clearly the stronger negotiating partner. In negotiating, as in bargaining, a fast deal that both parties will accept means the two do not have shared standards for the transaction. What the seller perceives as a lot of money for his product (or the most he can get), the buyer perceives as a steal. When the parties share a vocabulary, the deal is likely to please each less and take longer to make--because the seller perceives what he is getting as too little, while the buyer thinks the cost is too high.

Talks between Israelis and Syrians are not moving along as well because each side is strong and feels it can strike a hard bargain. These two powers share the same language of force. No compelling reason has been presented why either should bend. The result: stalemate, and an ugly situation in Lebanon that has been allowed to fester.

On Wednesday morning in Jerusalem, air-raid sirens sounded over the usual honking of horns. Was it Katyushas coming? But that was ridiculous, since they can't even reach over the entire Galilee, much less to Jerusalem.

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