Vote obscures crisis in Palestinian areas Shutting off the economy makes situation explosive

The Election Of Benjamin Netanyahu

June 09, 1996|By Henry Siegman

THE INTENSE international interest received by the election of Benjamin Netanyahu threatens to obscure and divert attention from a critical situation in the Palestinian territories whose amelioration cannot be postponed for some later time.

A slower and more deliberate Israeli approach is not necessarily fatal to the ultimate success of such outstanding issues in the peace process as the Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese negotiations, further steps toward normalization with other Arab countries and even the beginning of the final status talks with the Palestinians. But the same cannot be said about the crisis created by the drastic closure imposed by the current Labor government in Gaza and on the West Bank last February. Delay in resolving that crisis can have catastrophic consequences for the peace process as a whole.

The suspension of the movement of people and goods on the West Bank and in Gaza for the past several months has devastated what little new economic activity had begun to develop there. It has created unspeakable hardship, frustration and bitter anger.

Yasser Arafat has been able to keep a lid on what has been a dangerously explosive situation -- at considerable cost to his political standing -- because of the expectation that drastic remedial action would follow in the immediate aftermath of last Wednesday's elections. Of course, the assumption was that Shimon Peres would emerge victorious. His defeat has left Arafat in a particularly vulnerable and exposed political situation.

It is highly unlikely that a Likud-led government, even one that intends to remain faithful to the existing Oslo accords (itself hardly a certainty), will be willing to take the political and economic initiatives that will be needed to defuse the explosive mood in the territories.

pTC Such steps would have to include an immediate easing of the closure and a return to the free movement of people and goods -- something that the outgoing Peres administration should be doing immediately with the support of Netanyahu. It also will have to include Israeli leadership in mobilizing international aid to rescue a Palestinian economy that is in shambles.

Given the donor fatigue that has impeded the flow of previously promised aid, not to speak of the donors' reluctance to enlarge their existing commitments, a mobilization of new funding would be a formidable task, indeed. It would have no chance of succeeding without Israel and the United States -- in that order -- themselves setting the pace with generous contributions.

As difficult as such largess may seem in the existing political and economic circumstances in Israel and in the United States, it represents but a small fraction of the cost that may well be incurred if urgent preventive action is not taken.

For absent such immediate initiatives to defuse the rage and disappointment in the Palestinian territories, there is an imminent danger that the Palestinian Authority's leadership will lose control and the territories will erupt in violence. Indeed, given Arafat's history as a survivor, it is not inconceivable that as he and his advisers read the tea leaves, he will decide to stay ahead of the curve, marching at the head of the upheaval.

Cynics may suggest that such an upheaval would be welcome to a new Likud government, offering an excuse to return the Israeli army to the West Bank areas from which it has been withdrawn and bringing the peace process to a grinding halt. While this might be true of Ariel Sharon and those who think like him, there is no reason to believe that Netanyahu and the more centrist members of his new government would see such an undoing of the peace process as anything short of a disaster.

Still, the prospect for dramatic new initiatives to be undertaken by the party that promises Israelis to enlarge Jewish settlements in the territories and to expropriate land for further Jewish housing in Jerusalem may be close to nil. But there is a difference between the exigencies of electoral campaigns and the responsibilities of governance. None of the hard-line electoral promises need preclude generous assistance to Palestinians in their present circumstances. Indeed, given the Likud's opposition to Palestinian statehood, it has a stake in the viability of the current autonomy. Moreover, if the Palestinian accords do not hold and Israel is faced with a new intifada -- one that will surely be far deadlier than its predecessor -- there is little question that Egypt, Jordan and other Arab countries will quickly distance themselves from the Jewish state.

Preventing such a violent undoing of the progress that has been made in these past three years is the immediate challenge facing Israeli policy-makers in both the outgoing and the incoming governments, no less than in the Clinton administration.

And the time for action is now, for tomorrow or the day after may be too late.

Henry Siegman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared in Newsday.

Pub Date: 6/09/96

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