Likud move will mean more later

May 16, 2002|By Shibley Telhami

THE DECISION by the central committee of Israel's ruling Likud party to reject the creation of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River may be more consequential for diplomacy and politics than is apparent.

To be sure, party positions and platforms rarely obligate governments and leaders, and this decision is probably not different from other political maneuvers. Even former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had rejected the Oslo agreements, ultimately found himself going along with them and pushing them forward through the Wye River accords that he signed.

Likud's move was more significant for its message of support for Mr. Netanyahu, who would like to replace Ariel Sharon as prime minister. Given that the next Israeli elections will revert to the system of voting for parties instead of directly for candidates for prime minister, Likud's decision does not bode well for Mr. Sharon's prospects.

But Likud's action will undoubtedly affect the prospects of diplomacy and politics in the short term. Many Palestinians, who have always been suspicious of Israeli intentions, are likely to interpret this move as reflecting Israel's "real designs." This will complicate the Palestinian Authority's effort to rebuild consensus in support of the current international diplomatic efforts and away from the use of violence.

U.S. diplomacy will have to work hard just to stay in place: Suspicious friendly Arab governments who have been coordinating their new peacemaking efforts with the United States will require new American assurances. And congressional leaders who have in the past several weeks echoed President Bush's support for the creation of a Palestinian state may now be more reluctant to publicly restate this position, thus giving the impression that U.S. support for a Palestinian state is eroding - even as the Bush administration continues to maintain its firm position.

At the same time, Likud's move has made two things clear.

First, Mr. Sharon will not be able to defeat Mr. Netanyahu by moving to the right. No matter how far he moves to the right as prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu the political candidate can move further right since his positions have no consequence. Mr. Sharon's best chance to revive his prospects is to win more people in the center and to convince his party that he has a better chance of winning the general election than Mr. Netanyahu.

This can only happen if he's seen to have increased Israeli security and revived the prospects of a peaceful settlement, and neither of these objectives can be obtained by moving further to the right.

Second, Likud's action comes at a time when the international community, especially the United States, has fully endorsed the notion of a Palestinian state at peace with Israel, including through an unprecedented resolution of the U.N. Security Council. Mr. Bush has been forceful in stating his commitment to this vision even as he has been staunchly friendly to Israel and its security needs.

The discourse in American politics in recent weeks has grown to take for granted the need for a Palestinian state, and a public opinion survey in America in November found that 77 percent of Americans endorsed the president's support for such a state.

And in Israel, majorities continue to support this idea even under very difficult circumstances. Even Mr. Sharon found himself endorsing the idea as an outcome of negotiations, although his vision of the size and power of that state differ significantly from much of the world's.

In this environment, the action by Likud provides a stark contrast between the position of the Likud party and the consensus in the international community, and even the view of the majorities within Israel. It is a backward move just as much of the world is working hard to move forward.

This remarkable contrast could sharpen the choice for Israelis in ways that have been blurred in an environment of escalating violence and under a national unity government in Israel that brought left and right together. It may also highlight the risks of confrontation with the Bush administration that the Israeli public generally fears. And it may finally propel the Labor party to take the political initiative by putting Likud on the defensive.

But as usual in politics, especially in democratic politics, outcomes are hardly predictable and leaders are often victims of self-delusion.

What's clear is that the Likud central committee's rejection of a Palestinian state, which will have little bearing on the current policy of the government of Israel, could have much more of an impact on the politics and diplomacy of peacemaking in the months ahead.

Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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