If Netanyahu keeps his promises

June 10, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- An astonishingly large part of the discussion of Israel's policy options, particularly in American circles, seems to assume that the new prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, can do as he pleases in security matters. The Arab reaction is not a constraint.

Mr. Netanyahu's campaign promised peace plus security, with no concessions to the Arabs. He said that Israel would keep the Golan Heights, keep the existing colonies on the West Bank and in Hebron, or even expand them, re-enter Gaza if that seemed useful, and also stop Hamas suicide bombings inside Israel and the shelling of Israeli villages by Islamic militants in southern Lebanon.

His opponent, Shimon Peres, was merely promising peace, acknowledging that this would have to be paid for by territorial and political concessions to the Palestine Liberation Organization and Syria.

Mr. Peres and his murdered predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, had already taken a dangerous line with respect to the PLO. They yielded Yasser Arafat enough -- barely -- to keep him a negotiating partner, but not enough really to satisfy the Palestinians.

A powerless Palestine

The Israeli objective was an autonomous but essentially powerless Palestinian entity, wrapped in Israeli military power, incorporating protected Jewish colonies, economically dependent upon Israel -- an Israeli client-state, or a client shared between Israel and Jordan. They were coming very close to getting this.

Mr. Netanyahu wants more. Most discussion, at least in circles sympathetic to the Likud party, takes for granted that he can get more. This is not true. He cannot do so without totally discrediting the PLO, which would be dangerous to Israel.

If all PLO plausibility is destroyed, Palestinians in and around Israel will be driven toward that desperate and nihilistic struggle wanted by those in the Arab world who from the beginning have condemned the so-called peace process, insisted that Israel would never go through with it, and demanded struggle to the death against Israel (and the United States).

The austere and independent Hebrew-language daily Ha'aretz wrote last week that if Israel's new government does not fulfill the promises of its predecessor to complete Israel's withdrawal from Hebron and release more political prisoners, or if Mr. Netanyahu does as he has said he would do and eliminates the PLO presence in Jerusalem, the PLO will have no reason not to renounce its promises as well. Indeed, its political survival could depend on renouncing them, breaking off cooperation with Israel.

Why should Yasser Arafat's police force continue to cooperate with Israel in hunting down Hamas, as it has been doing? Ha'aretz notes that if Israel should re-enter Gaza to run down terrorists, its army would find that ''there now are more than 20,000 armed Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. That means there would be war.''

In that eventuality, the relative insecurity of the last weeks of the Peres government might look good to Israeli citizens.

Sometimes overlooked

The sometimes overlooked aspect of this affair is that Mr. Netanyahu was not elected by people who in their majority are hostile to ''the peace process,'' or to some peace process.

The issue was security, not peace with the Arabs. People wanted the one without losing the other. They thought that by voting against the ''peace process'' as conducted by Mr. Peres, they would have both security and peace.

But a crucial underlying issue was social, even cultural in the American political sense, as the new prime minister and his American campaign advisers understood. There was a paradox in what happened. The American Mr. Netanyahu, and his American minders, with hyper-Americanized campaign tactics and advertisements, mobilized that part of the Israeli public which most hates and fears what may be called the ''Americanization'' of Israel.

The ruling class

The coalition which defeated Shimon Peres is described by the mass-market daily Yediot Aharonot as made up not only of religious voters and expansionists but those ''who feel forgotten, cut off from modern Israel's society. . . . [who] see the Labor party and the left as Israel's ruling class in politics, culture and economy -- domains in which they feel excluded. They are not entirely wrong to do so.''

When Yitzhak Rabin's widow said immediately after the election that she felt like packing her bags and leaving Israel, she was unintentionally confirming the existence of this cultural breach in Israel's society.

However the cultural war is mixed up with what has been a real war with the Arabs. Voting on one front inevitably had consequences, potentially grave ones, on the other front.

Those Israeli voters who refused to trust Israel's security to Mr. Peres, because he is a cosmopolitan and Europeanized intellectual, a diplomatic realist, voted instead for the ''security'' promised by Mr. Netanyahu. But they did this without acknowledging that if Mr. Netanyahu acts as he has promised to act, he will inevitably bring them insecurity, or even war.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/10/96

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