Israel's Leadership Struggle

February 22, 1992

Hopes for progress in Middle East peace negotiations were marginally strengthened by the party leadership struggles in Israel, preparing for the June 23 election. Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who returns to the leadership of the opposition Labor Party, favors the negotiations and the concept of swapping land for peace. He has said that, in power, he would put a stop to settlement-building on the West Bank.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who remains at the helm of Likud, is his old seemingly intransigent self. But in holding on with 46.2 percent of some 2,800 party central committee members, his stiffest challenge came on the dovish side from Foreign Minister David Levy, with 31.2 percent. Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, the extremist builder of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, got only 22.3 percent and is no longer a threat.

The Labor Party leadership election was notable as Israel's first American-style primary, with registered party members voting in place of the central committee. Mr. Rabin was always more popular with the rank and file than Shimon Peres, the leader of the past 15 years. Mr. Peres has led the party to four defeats. Though he shared power with Mr. Shamir in a grand coalition, as prime minister from 1984 to 1986, polls have suggested that only under Mr. Rabin could Labor win enough seats to make that happen again.

The notion is that a Shamir government dependent on Labor would be more flexible in negotiations and less adamant for settlements than it has been while depending on fringe extremist support.

The settlements and the peace talks will figure strongly in the campaign. Any Israeli government will be skeptical and cautious in negotiation, and will be forceful in defending Israel from attack, as the Shamir caretaker government was in its tank raid in Lebanon. What the world and Israelis need is a government that would also seize opportunities for peace should any materialize. It is not clear that Israel has such a regime now.

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