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Commentary

The Quiet Before the Election Storm

Israel: Arafat would prefer to deal with Ehud Barak, which is why voters may reelect Benjamin Netanyahu.

May 16, 1999|DAVID ELIEZRIE | Rabbi David Eliezrie is the president of the Rabbinical Assn. of Orange County. E-mail: tzedek@sprynet.com

There has been a strange quiet in the Middle East for the past few months. As Israelis go at each other during an acrimonious election campaign, the Palestinians have been sitting on the sidelines, doing what they can to help the Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak, win election.

Yasser Arafat has made it clear that Barak is his candidate of choice for prime minister. How has he done that? By stopping acts of terrorism.

On the eve of the last election, bus bombings, shootings and other acts of violence against Jews were in full force. The political impotence of Shimon Peres to curtail that violence was crucial to Benjamin Netanyahu's election.

But this election season, everything is quiet. The Palestinians learned the last time around that the violence will only bring them a prime minister who will be tougher to deal with. They don't want this to happen again, so for the moment, they have curtailed terrorism.

This lack of violence is proof of what many Israeli observers contend: Arafat turns terrorism on and off to meet his needs.

When the bombs hit in the past, Arafat would as a matter of course issue a press release to the foreign media in English lamenting the death and destruction. But to his own people in Arabic he would laud the bus bombers as "martyrs." But the calm Israel now is enjoying will soon be shattered. If, after the election, he does not get what he wants, he is sure to revert to his old ways.

In the meanwhile, Arafat pushes the edge of the envelope. Just three weeks ago, it was reported that he released three men from Gaza prison who had been involved in the 1996 suicide bombings killing 58 people. They got the standard Palestinian sentence for killing Jews: a few months in jail and, when the media spotlight fades, freedom to strike again.

To a large extent, Netanyahu was elected because the Israeli public was tired of watching Arafat make promises and not deliver on them.

Arafat has learned over the past three years that Netanyahu will not let him get away with the same games he played with Shimon Peres and late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Netanyahu has drawn the ire of the political right for giving him too much and the left for too little. Still, both sides know that he has held Arafat more accountable than the Labor leadership in the past.

There is no question that Arafat would prefer Barak as his negotiating partner.

Here lies the real issue of the Israeli election. Will Barak win because of the 10% of the Israeli voters who are Arabs and are heeding Arafat's seal of approval? Or will Netanyahu prevail again with close to 60% of the Jewish vote as he did in the last election?

The next prime minister will be leading Israel at a most contentious time. If Arafat gets what he wants, the quiet will undoubtedly continue. If this does not happen, there is no question that he will return to the terrorism that has been his strategy for decades.

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