Israel's new American prime minister

June 08, 1996|By Daniel Berger

BENJAMIN Netanyahu has a direct mandate from the electorate, which no previous prime minister of Israel had.

His Likud Party heritage, past opposition to peace talks and campaign promises clash with U.S. policy. They differ on a land-for-peace swap with Syria, West Bank settlements, redeployment from Hebron, possible statehood for Palestine and the eventual status of Jerusalem.

Were Mr. Netanyahu to cave in to Washington, he would be selling out the people who elected him. The collision is between the tradition of Likud and Revisionist Zionism for a Greater Israel in defiance of its neighbors, and broad American support for the founding vision of a lesser Israel in harmony with its neighbors.

The catch is that Mr. Netanyahu's mandate was no mandate. The electorate was evenly split.

The decision turned on Israeli Arab voters who should have supported Prime Minister Shimon Peres but spoiled their ballots in rage at his bombing of the Lebanese to placate Israelis skeptical of him on security.

Had these been counted as abstentions, Mr. Netanyahu would have had no majority. Israel's high court ruled that those were defective ballots not to be counted, giving him a sliver of majority.

Had Mr. Peres won by such a margin, his mandate to go ahead would have been no better.

American Jewry supporting Israel is equally split and has been a long time. Some liberal and dovish American Jews, dismayed by Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, are tempted to undermine Mr. Netanyahu. Some conservative and hawkish American Jews tried to thwart the peace-making of Yitzhak Rabin and Mr. Peres.

The Arens account

Moshe Arens, foreign and defense minister for Mr. Shamir, wrote a book last year excoriating the Bush administration. He accused Secretary of State James Baker of undermining Likud, putting Israeli security at risk and conspiring with Messrs. Rabin and Peres in behalf of the PLO. The Clinton victory in 1992, by his account, was fitting rejection of this perfidy by American voters.

Mr. Arens was Mr. Netanyahu's political and diplomatic mentor. He has been rumored for a senior post in the next government. Sen. Bob Dole appears in his book briefly as an astonishing appeaser of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. So what would happen if Mr. Arens were foreign minister during a Dole presidency?

Clinton policy is a continuation of Bush-Baker policy. This and the divisions in Israeli and world Jewish opinion are impediments to Netanyahu policies. That has fomented talk of a Likud-Labor coalition government.

Such a grand coalition would be damned by settlers and zealots. But it would disarm Mr. Netanyahu's critics abroad and be taken as evidence of his commitment to the peace process. It would help him out of promises he might regret. It would line up Likud behind any concessions, and Labor behind hard lines.

Mr. Netanyahu is a super Israeli nationalist who emigrated to America as a teen-ager, remained a decade and nearly became an American. He is a secularist champion of theocracy. The credibility of his piety equals that of his contemporaries, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich.

Some liberals and doves pin hopes on Mr. Netanyahu's deviousness. Their model is not Nixon in China or Begin in Sinai so much as Charles de Gaulle of France, accepting power from the foes of Algerian independence in order to set Algeria free.

The American-ness of Mr. Netanyahu is his secret weapon in the coming dialogue. He understands us better than any of his predecessors did. Never underestimate his ability to persuade. ''Bibi, King of Israel,'' is one immigrant to America who made it big.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/08/96

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