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MIDEAST

U.S. Must Do More Than Wait

June 09, 1996|Shibley Telhami | Shibley Telhami, director of Cornell University's Near Eastern Studies Program, is currently a guest scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He is the author, among other things, of a book on the Camp David Accords

WASHINGTON — For more than three years, the United States has labored to persuade suspicious Arabs, especially Syrians and Palestinians, that major differences divide the main political parties in Israel, and, specifically, that the election of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu would be a blow to prospects for peace. It took many months and the assassination of an Israeli prime minister to drive home this point. Now that Netanyahu is the prime minister-elect, every player in the Mideast peace game will have to adjust, but repackaging Netanyahu as the Israeli most likely to deliver peace with the Arabs, just as Richard M. Nixon revolutionized U.S. relations with China, will prove difficult in the short term. A new American approach will be needed.

To be sure, Israel's Arab partners in the peace negotiations, especially the Palestinians, have little choice but to pretend that the consequences of Netanyahu in power will be limited. Yasser Arafat has put all his eggs in the peace basket; he has no military option, and he cannot pack up and move back to Tunis. His tone since the Israeli elections has been conciliatory--even hopeful. He will no doubt continue to send his negotiators to the table he shares with Israel, even as Palestinian hardships continue. But is there any objective reason for Arafat to hope and, if his hope is unjustified, can he keep his constituents on board?

True, Netanyahu's ideological outlook is unknown. But it is equally true that his party's commitment to keeping the West Bank in Israel's orbit is not solely dependent on security arguments, but is deeply tied to religious and ideological claims. In the past, other Likud leaders have been willing to pay a high price to consolidate Israeli control over the region. For Netanyahu, the Nixon-in-China analogy is not inconceivable on any issue--including Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights--except that of the West Bank.

Still, a number of factors suggest that the new Israeli leader may be unpredictable. Above all, Netanyahu cannot ignore the Oslo agreements, which have gone too far to be reversed. Even the Israeli public is unlikely to support any reoccupation of Palestinian cities. In any case, the current situation in the Palestinian territories is not sustainable, either economically or politically, so the old Likud annexation view would, at a minimum, have to be altered. Moreover, the same public mood in Israel that helped elect Netanyahu strongly desires Palestinian-Israeli separation. Building more Jewish settlements on the West Bank would make separation more difficult.

What makes Netanyahu's personal views particularly central in the shaping of Israeli foreign policy is that he is the first directly elected prime minister of Israel, which gives him more personal clout than other Israeli leaders have had. Moreover, his own party, the Likud, did rather poorly in the elections, winning only a little more than one-fourth of the seats in the Knesset--fewer than the number gained by Labor. The first hints of his foreign-policy instinct will become evident when he forms the new government. He faces two consequential choices: forming a right-wing government of mostly Likud and the religious parties, or assembling a national unity government that would include Labor and embark on a centrist course.

A narrow right-wing government would instantly define Netanyahu's ideology, even if he personally lacks one. Key ministries affecting settlement policy (defense, foreign affairs, housing, finance) would probably go to individuals who have clear ideological commitments on the West Bank. And key constituents, such as Jewish settlers, may seek confrontation even if the prime minister prefers to avoid one. One early casualty could be the indefinite postponement of the Israeli withdrawal from Hebron.

In order to reduce the chance of violence, and thus confrontation with the United States, Netanyahu may strive to improve the economic conditions of the Palestinians to the extent that this objective would not conflict with his political ambitions. Even so, it is doubtful that Arafat can pacify his public if it looks like Palestinian political hopes are being irreversibly dashed. A new cycle of violence could result.

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