Christopher visits as Israel prepares for early elections Date change by Peres could stall negotiations on peace with Syria

February 06, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Warren Christopher's latest shuttle in hopes of an Israel-Syria peace agreement is being complicated by an early outbreak of Israeli politics.

The U.S. secretary of state arrived here Sunday to find Israel already has begun an election campaign that is likely to hamper Israel's and Syria's willingness to make a peace deal.

The general election, scheduled for Oct. 29, will be moved forward to late May, according to reports in the Israeli media, and political maneuvering already has begun. Prime Minister Shimon Peres has not publicly endorsed the new schedule but is expected to make the announcement soon after Mr. Christopher leaves.

"I will try to facilitate the negotiations and press forward whatever decision is made by the Israeli government," Mr. Christopher said yesterday. He and Mr. Peres talked optimistically of continuing peace talks even during an Israeli campaign.

But most observers see that as wishful thinking. It is unlikely that either Mr. Peres or Syrian President Hafez el Assad will risk signing an agreement until voters decide whether Mr. Peres will continue as prime minister or whether the Israeli right wing will regain the control of the Israeli government it lost in 1992.

"This visit serves no purpose," the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv said yesterday of Mr. Christopher's shuttle. "The unofficial announcement about advancing the elections will place the talks with Syria on a back burner, if not into the deep freeze.

"Christopher should pack his bags and devote his energy in the next few months to Bosnia, Chechnya or pressing issues in Africa," the newspaper concluded.

The secretary of state, on his 17th trip to the Middle East, is scheduled to go to Damascus today to confer with Mr. Assad, and likely will return to Israel tomorrow. They are expected to discuss the negotiations held at the Wye River Conference Centers on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

An early election is a change of strategy for Mr. Peres, who became prime minister after the Nov. 4 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Until now, he has vowed to stick to the October schedule in hopes of using the time to win a peace agreement with Syria before he goes to the polls.

But the negotiations with Syria have not produced quick progress. And public opinion polls have shown Mr. Peres continues to have a strong lead over his Likud bloc rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, suggesting that sooner elections could be advantageous for Mr. Peres.

Politics is a national sport in Israel, a country where most people are addicted to hourly doses of news and nearly anyone is ready to offer up political analysis on the issue of the day.

Mr. Netanyahu delivered the first election surprise yesterday, announcing that his Likud bloc and a smaller right-wing party, Tsomet, would run together in the election.

The 120 members of the Israeli Knesset are split among 12 parties, and any such union has the potential for affecting the delicate balance between the right-wing group and the left-wing group.

Tsomet, led by former army chief of staff Rafael "Raful" Eitan, was "a party that really believed that the Arab-Israeli conflict could be solved by a volley of M-16s," said Nahum Barnea, a commentator for the daily Yediot Ahronot.

As part of the deal, Mr. Netanyahu got a promise from Mr. Eitan not to run for prime minister. His candidacy would have split right-wing votes from Mr. Netanyahu in this first Israeli election in which the prime minister will be elected directly, and not selected by the party.

Already newspapers are carrying political advertisements, most opposing any withdrawal from the Golan Heights as part of a peace deal with Syria. So quickly has election fever risen here that candidates have been lobbying high schools that are conducting straw election polls.

"The move toward early elections has been set in motion, and I don't think it can be stopped," said Yossi Beilin, a minister and adviser to Mr. Peres.

Mr. Peres is said to be considering holding the election May 21 or 28. If no candidate for prime minister achieves 50 percent, a runoff would take place in mid-June.

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