Israeli voters' dismissal of the intransigent Likud Party government, in favor of a Labor Party-led coalition, is a watershed in Israel's history. It equals Likud's victory in 1977 that ended 29 years of Labor rule. It foretells a restart to peace negotiations with Palestinians and Arab states. It is welcome throughout the world.
Prime minister-presumptive Yitzhak Rabin is committed to fulfilling the 1978 Camp David accord proviso for limited Palestinian self-government while permanent status is under negotiation. He is philosophically wedded to trading land for peace. He is sworn to redirect investment from new settlements in the West Bank to jobs for Russian immigrants. Those changes from the unyielding dogmatism of Yitzhak Shamir should be enough to infuse new hope and meaning to the negotiation process. They should also improve relations between the Israeli and U.S. governments.
These positions are harbingers of renewed negotiation, but not necessarily of success in those negotiations. Mr. Rabin won the leadership of the Labor Party as its hawk. His role as chief of staff in the 1967 conquest of the West Bank and his repression as defense minister of the Palestinian uprising there symbolize his priority for national security. There is no assurance that his idea of partial return of Arab land is within negotiable range of Palestinian demands for it all.
While adamant about curtailing Jewish settlements in the West Bank, he favors having some for security reasons. He would stop short of the freeze that the Bush administration has sought if the U.S. is to provide $10 billion in loan guarantees. Israel seeks the guarantees to enlarge its economy to sustain some 400,000 new Russian immigrants. General Rabin is not a breath of fresh air but a 70-year-old former prime minister who left office in 1977 under a cloud of financial scandal.
With returns still incomplete, Labor is poised to form a coalition with the dovish and leftist Meretz bloc and one other grouping. The stunning electoral shift reflected the appeal of Labor's priority for economic growth to underemployed Russian immigrants, and the disillusion of Sephardic Israelis (who emigrated from Arab lands) with Likud, which took their loyalty for granted.
An Israeli government eager to approach the negotiating table, albeit with tough bargaining positions, moves the onus for progress from Israel to the Arab side. It will soon be up to the Palestinian delegation to demonstrate readiness to accept autonomy. And it will soon be up to Syria's dictator Hafez el Assad to show willingness to have peace. During the period when Mr. Shamir's intransigence and the election campaign paralyzed the negotiation, Arab participants had nothing to prove. Soon they will. What happened in Israel reflected a shift in public opinion for testing Arab intentions for peace. It deserves to be reciprocated.