Israel votes but America decides

June 03, 1996|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS -- The election in Israel was a referendum on the Middle Eastern peace process, but it was also a referendum on Israel's relationship to the United States even though Israeli voters may not have fully appreciated that fact.

The United States has sponsored, supported and partially financed the Israel-PLO agreements and the painfully slow and difficult process of mutual accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians which has followed. President Bill Clinton ostentatiously supported re-election of the Labor Party, and of Shimon Peres as prime minister.

The Bush administration, and President Bush's Secretary of State, James Baker, made enemies in Israel for opposing Likud policies, in particular Likud's program for expanding Jewish colonies on the West Bank and in Hebron.

The United States under both Democrats and Republicans has given its political and financial support to the program of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation conducted by the Rabin and Peres Labor governments, and has opposed policies to which Likud's new leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is committed and with which he seems to have won this election.

Mr. Netanyahu has said that he is in favor of the peace process, and that he accepts the Oslo and Washington accords "as a starting point." However he opposes a Palestinian state, will not consider a changed status for Jerusalem, and will reinforce and develop the Jewish colonies on the West Bank and in Hebron "there will be no limits on the Israeli colonies." He rejects any settlement with Syria that would require 'any territorial concession concerning the Golan Heights," which Israel took from Syria in the 1967 war.

He does not exclude the possibility of new agreements with the Arabs, but believes these will be produced through pressure, not concessions.

His supporters believe the Arab world enduringly hostile to Israel, and fear that once the Palestinians have consolidated the political and territorial concessions already made to them by Israel's Labor government, they will resume the effort to destroy Israel. Israel can only be secure, they say, through political intransigence and a vigorous military response to every challenge.

They voted against Shimon Peres because he was not only committed to the peace agreements but was prepared to give up both the Golan Heights and that part of south Lebanon which Israel occupies, if in exchange he could have peace with Syria and Lebanon. He expected this in turn to produce a normalization of political and economic relations with most of the other Arab countries.

He took for granted that Iran would continue to support the Islamic fundamentalist groups hostile to Israel's existence. However, if Mr. Peres' policies succeeded, he expected Israel finally to be accepted, as a state like other states, by the overwhelming majority of the Middle Eastern Islamic nations.

Sectarian constraints

Both Labor and Likud parties lost ground in parliament in this election, which means that neither can form a government that would not be a coalition with some of the small parties. These are mainly concerned with domestic political and sectarian issues, but are a constraint on the major parties' freedom of action.

Nonetheless, the difference between a government led by Mr. Netanyahu and one led by Mr. Peres is dramatically clear, and Israeli voters seem to have chosen the former. They have done so out of entirely comprehensible concerns for their future security, and anxiety about the dangers in which they live.

Theirs is nonetheless a choice which finds little sympathy abroad. This is of no consequence in itself, since Israel's problems and choices are its own. However Israel is heavily dependent on the United States for security and economic support. It is by far the main recipient of U.S. aid, and while there is all but universal support for that aid among the American political class, there is much less support for it in American public opinion generally.

It is a simple reality of political life that Israel cannot indefinitely expect to enjoy large public subsidies from the United States if Israel rejects the Middle Eastern peace process favored by the greater part of American public opinion. In the long run, something will crack.

Mr. Netanyahu has many friends in Washington, and indeed once thought of becoming an American citizen. Likud has many supporters in the American Jewish community and the American press. But Mr. Netanyahu wants to take his country in one direction, while Americans in general prefer the direction in which Mr. Peres was headed.

That is the reality of the choice Israeli voters have made.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist

Pub date: 6/3/96

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