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Will Netanyahu Have the Will to Fight for Peace?

June 09, 1996|James A. Baker III | James A. Baker III served as secretary of state from 1989-1992

WASHINGTON — To a pessimist, Benjamin Netanyahu's election as Israeli prime minister sounds the death knell for the Middle East peace process. To an optimist, the hope is either that Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and their colleagues have gone so far on the road to peace that their legacy will be difficult, even impossible, to overturn; or that Netanyahu will follow the example of his hard-line Likud predecessor Menachim Begin, who returned the Sinai for peace with Egypt. But to a realist--the sensible stance amid the region's recurrent political earthquakes--the situation is far more complex. The peace process with the Palestinians is likely to slow down and the Syrian-Lebanese track is likely to stall completely--at least until after the U.S. elections in November.

A change in any government is always an obstacle to continuing negotiations and invariably results in a pause of one kind or another. Netanyahu will need time to form the government and create a negotiating team.

Netanyahu won only slightly more than 50% of the popular vote--hardly a personal mandate. The Likud coalition will probably consist of nine separate parties, each with its own agenda. Orthodox Jews voted overwhelmingly for Netanyahu. The National Religious Party and Shas, with a substantial increase in their representation in the Knesset, will serve as Likud's bulwark, but the cost for their support will be adherence to their specific political agendas.

Over the long term, three questions will dominate events. First, as head of an ultraconservative coalition, will Netanyahu be courageous enough to lead his more hard-line followers or will he become their captive? Second, given the Clinton administration's strong support for Peres, will the White House and Israel's new prime minister be able to reach a modus vivendi that allows the peace process to go forward, albeit at a glacial pace in comparison with Peres' plans? Third, will King Hussein of Jordan, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and other Arab moderates be able to resist the challenge of Arab extremists who will seek to interpret the election results as a clear victory for their strategy of suicide bombings and violence?

The election revealed that the deep fissures within Israeli society exposed by Yigal Amir's assassination of Rabin have hardly healed. Indeed, the analogy with America during the Vietnam War--a society at war with itself--seems even more apt than it did last October. While Likud supporters were dancing in the streets, Rabin's widow was talking about packing her suitcases and Arafat was clearly stunned.

On to this rather unsettling stage stepped Netanyahu, young (46) and untested in top-governmental leadership positions. In arguing on the campaign trail that he was for a "secure peace" and would not entirely walk away from Oslo's provisions, Netanyahu showed a pragmatic instinct behind his occasionally inflammatory oratory. Already, the realities of governing have forced the Likud leader and a few of his advisors to edge away from some more hard-line remarks.

Unlike Rabin, Peres or Yitzhak Shamir, his Likud predecessor, Netanyahu is, in many ways, an unformed politician. This provides some optimism that he can change and grow in office. Upon assuming office, Netanyahu--as he showed in his first speech after the elections last Sunday--is likely to become far more conscious of the judgment of history, which may be the greatest moderating force of all. It could be the key to determining whether Netanyahu will be more courageous than craven in his leadership.

Washington can play an important role in shaping the environment in which Netanyahu governs. The new prime minister certainly recognizes this. Calling U.S.-Israeli relations "strong as a rock," Netanyahu wasted no time in extending an olive branch to the Clinton administration, which had openly supported Peres. Netanyahu understands the centrality of Washington not only to the peace process--where only Washington can play the role of honest broker--but also to Israel's security writ large. Only the United States can ensure some of Israel's broader security interests--demonstrated by its absolute and total commitment to Israel's security, including, in addition to generous financial and military assistance, actions such as Desert Storm's devastation of Iraq's offensive military capability.

Regardless of whether Bob Dole or Bill Clinton emerges victorious in November, Netanyahu will want to cultivate good relations with both parties in Washington. He knows he and his diplomats will have to work with the president and secretary of state, but that he'll also need good relations with Capitol Hill, which maintains America's continued financial support for Israel.

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