Posted on June 03, 1996 in Washington Watch

The outcome of Israel’s elections poses serious challenges for Arabs and Americans alike.

What emerged clearly from the cloudy election results is that Israel is deeply politically divided and socially fragmented. Such internal weakness would have presented Labor’s Shimon Peres with enormous difficulties had he been reelected. A Labor-led government with no electoral mandate could not have taken the steps necessary to resolve final status issues with Palestinians or complete a land-for-peace agreement with Syria.

A fragile Labor-led coalition could not have stopped settlement expansion, or made significant and meaningful concessions to Palestinians on land and water rights, Jerusalem, commerce, refugees, and sovereignty. Nor could they have found the political will or necessary votes to leave the Golan Heights.

About all that such a weak Labor government could have done would have been to maintain the fiction of a peace process—this being the minimum necessary to satisfy the political needs of the U.S. and some of Israel’s Arab negotiating partners. From a U.S. perspective, too much political capital and strategic planning have been invested in this search for a comprehensive peace to see it aborted at this point.

It is this need to pacify the U.S. that has caused Likud’s Benyamin Netanyahu to begin to make vague statements about supporting a peace process.

But Netanyahu’s concept of peace is quite different from that which was envisioned by the disciples of the current peace process—and worlds apart from the minimum just requirements of the Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese.

Whether Netanyahu’s charade of a peace process will be convincing enough to allow the U.S. to assert that there is continuity in the process is not at all certain. In no small measure this will depend on whether or not Netanyahu’s pitch is accepted by the Arab world.

It should be recalled that this current push for a comprehensive Middle East peace emerged out of the post-cold war, post-Gulf war strategic thinking of President George Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker. It was their realization that the U.S. could no longer reasonably operate in the Middle East with a two-track policy that led to efforts to reconcile Arabs and Israelis and achieve a comprehensive peace.

Most Arab states accepted both the premises and the ground rules established to govern the search for peace. In fact, it was Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir’s resistance to accept the land for peace formula and his challenge to the U.S. role in this process that provoked the confrontation that led to his demise.

Shamir was replaced by a Labor government that was weak but a willing participant in the U.S.-led process.

While the U.S. inspired the process and desired its successful completion, it did not play an active role in helping to shape its outcome.

As a result, the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians and the weakness of the Labor government combined to distort the process. The agreements produced by the Israelis and the Palestinians were decidedly in Israel’s favor—but they were a agreements that could, if implemented, have resulted in realization of Palestinian rights to self-determination. Despite their weaknesses, the mere fact of the agreements themselves were enough to excite U.S. policy makers and to sustain Arab involvement in the process. Summits in Casablanca and Amman, multi-lateral sessions at venues throughout the Arab world, regional security discussions, and trade delegations crises-crossing the region therefore all continued despite the fact that Palestinians were not, in any significant way, recipients of the benefits of peace.

Despite the continued closure of the West Bank and Gaza and Israel’s failure (and inability) to comply with their agreements with the Palestinians, the rhetoric of Labor and Arab good-will seemed to be sufficient to sustain the process.

Now Likud inherits this process. While the peace agreements reached thus far have not been fairly implemented, they nevertheless exist. In assuming the leadership in Israel, Likud inherits the obligations and commitments of the Labor government. They inherit agreements co-sponsored by the U.S. And while the U.S. Administration appeared to be willing to give Labor latitude in its failure to comply with these agreements, it remains to be seen whether similar latitude can or will be given to Likud.

Because Likud’s rhetoric is clearly anti-peace and its past practice even more so, it should prove difficult for Arab states to maintain the appearance of a peace process that has sustained the existing effort.

In fact, at this point, the Arabs have significant leverage which they can use to check Likud’s policy and force the U.S. to use pressure to move peace forward.

So much has been invested in this search for a Middle East peace, expectations have been raised by its modest accomplishments and the international community has been excited by the prospects of its success.

It will serve no governments’ interests to put a fig leaf over the crisis that has been precipitated by a Likud victory.

Likud may want to continue to reap the benefits of international legitimacy and economic activity created by the peace process. But they will want to do so on their terms—no territorial concessions with Syria and no discussion of final status issues with the Palestinians.

If Arab participants in the process do not act decisively in response to this crisis, the U.S. and other interested parties will not be forced to act.

The Arabs can act, however, to expose the crisis and, in the process, precipitate a positive international response.

The Arabs can rescue the peace process. They can do so by demanding that Likud accept the ground rules that defined the process, i.e. fulfillment of U.N. Security Council Resolutions and trading land for peace. They can insist that Likud commit to honoring existing agreements and fulfill its obligations to those agreements. They can demand a settlement freeze and serious final status talks on all issues including Jerusalem.

At the same time they can freeze all relations with the Likud government until these basic conditions are met. There should be no Arab participation in regional or multi-lateral discussions or conferences, no further confidence-building gestures to the Israeli government or businesses—no business as usual.

Such an Arab response should be seen as an extension of the limited refusal to participate in the Sharm el Sheikh follow-up meetings in the wake of the destructive Israeli assault on Lebanon. It would not be an anti-peace response, but a pro-peace effort to salvage the process from this crisis. Americans and Israelis must be helped to debate, in a dramatic and serious way, the implications of a collapse of the search for peace brought about by the failure of the Israeli electorate to choose to continue the path toward peace.

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