Fear of Mideast Peace

January 18, 1992

The third round of Arab-Israeli peace talks ended in Washington with little to show. Israel and Jordan agreed on the shape of a table. Israel and Syria went nowhere. The Palestinians presented a plan for their independence in occupied territories, which Israel agreed was a bargaining position, and rejected. Israel did not present its own plan, owing to confusion at home.

Few would think that Israel's government was giving away the store. But two tiny political parties in Israel thought just that. They quit Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's government, possibly bringing it down. This opens the way for paralysis, lengthy coalition-building or early election. These parties favor the incorporation of the occupied territories into Israel, and one advocates the expulsion of Palestinians. Many skeptical observers believed Mr. Shamir was never going to grant autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza, but these two feared he would. Perhaps they knew something.

Most Israelis want to trade land for peace but doubt whether Arabs do. Polls show that most Israelis favor these peace talks and want the implacable Mr. Shamir to conduct them. In other words, they want a deal, but the best deal, and they fear being taken in.

Whether Mr. Shamir would eventually live up to the hopes of the doves or the hawks, not even Washington knows. What is clear is that the political crisis finds the stubborn, 76-year-old prime minister at the top of his game. He is the most popular politician in Israel. The two dominant political parties, Mr. Shamir's Likud and opposition Labor, both favor the peace process. Labor does so with more enthusiasm, while Likud harbors a recalcitrant wing. What the two parties oppose most is each other.

The machinations of Israeli politics have given the extreme right and the extreme religious parties more influence than their votes mandate. Israel's approach to negotiations should not depend on the minority opposed to the talks. This situation argues for a grand coalition of Likud and Labor, which worked poorly when tried before. An early election might turn on the wishes of first-time voters from Russia. Some observers think they would adhere to the party in power at their arrival, Likud. Others think they would support the most secular party, Labor. Most think they want peace and security.

Even a caretaker Israeli government should keep up the momentum of the talks. The sooner Israel can get a mandated government back together, the better it can move to substance. The policy of such a government ought to reflect the majority Israeli sentiment for the talks, not be beholden to a tiny obstructionist coalition partner.

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