Israel's Elections and Their Implications

The assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, a spate of bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the refusal of Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad to play ball in the peace process, and a change of heart among Israel's new Russian immigrants all contributed to the election in May 1996 of the most right-wing government in Israel's history, led by Likud hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu. Among the likely consequences the author explores are the virtual freezing of the peace process, the rise of Palestinian frustration with the ensuing lack of progress, a resumption of anti-Israeli violence in the self-rule areas and in Israel, and increased pressure from Hizballah on Israeli forces in southern Lebanon.

Benny Morris, an Israeli historian, is author of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), and Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), which will be reissued in an expanded and revised edition in 1997. 

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THE REAL WINNER OF ISRAEL'S GENERAL ELECTIONS is Yigal Amir, the twenty-five-year- old Bar Ilan University law student who on 4 November 1995 assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He had set his mind on derailing the Israeli-Arab peace process and, apparently, he succeeded. Israel's new prime minister, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, seems unlikely to follow in the peacemaking footsteps of Rabin and his (short-term) successor, outgoing Prime Minister Shimon Peres, either with the Palestinians or with the Syrians and Lebanese.

Amir, who voted for Netanyahu from his prison cell in the 29 May general elections, had calculated accurately-indeed as accurately as his pistol aim that night last November. He had reasoned that the popular Rabin-the former IDF chief of staff and victor of the 1967 war-was the only Labor party leader capable of carrying the nation with him through the peace process. His military past and hard-line, no-nonsense image enabled him to sell a settlement involving major territorial concessions to the majority of Israelis. Once eliminated, his successors would tarry until the scheduled general elections, when the "outrage vote" against the Right generated by the assassination would prove insufficient to compensate for Labor's loss of its main electoral asset. And with the Likud in power, the peace process would grind to a halt.


The Fundamentalist Factor

The victory of Yigal Amir and his ilk had another, perhaps more profound meaning. In his person Amir embodied not only the ultranationalism that sets a fanatic on the path to political murder but also the two fundamentalist religious currents that have taken hold of the minds and souls of growing numbers of Israelis since the 1967 war. That war unleashed a deep strain of religious messianism long dormant in Judaism. The conquest-or "liberation" in Jewish messianic jargon-of the West Bank ("Judea and Samaria," as official Israel calls it) was identified by a whole coterie of rabbis and leaders of the country's then-small religious parties as the first gong of the bell tolling the approach of the "End of Days." Divine intervention had wrought the victory; divine salvation-including the reestablishment of the "Third" Temple on Mount Moriah (Haram al-Sharif) in Jerusalem's Old City-was at hand. These beliefs were at the root both of the subsequent settlement drive in the territories and the gradual growth and radicalization of the religious parties.

The first to be converted to these messianic politics was the National Religious Party (NRP), until then a moderately orthodox, politically middle-of-the-road group traditionally aligned with the Labor party. Its rallying cry became "Greater Israel," and in the following years it spawned and nurtured Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), a political movement which spearheaded Israel's expansionist settlement drive in the territories, as well as a host of smaller and even wilder outcroppings. These included the Jewish terrorist underground of the mid-1980s, which maimed with bombs a number of PLO-affiliated West Bank mayors, and the currently active Temple Mount Faithful, a small band of fanatics who seek to demolish the mosques on Mount Moriah to make way for the "Third Temple."

More recently, the two ultraorthodox parties, the traditionally non-nationalist anti-Zionist Ashkenazi Yahadut HaTorah (formerly Agudat Yisrael) and the non- Zionist Sephardi Shas, have gradually been swept up in this ultranationalist cur- rent. It should be noted, however, that many of their older spiritual leaders, most of them political doves (such as former Israeli Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef), have been pushed into right wing posturing by their grass-roots constituents.

At the heart of this essentially fundamentalist phenomenon are a number of paradoxes. The philosophy of the ultraorthodox, in fact, is non- or antinationalist and anti-Zionist, and its supporters do not serve in the IDF. Indeed, some fringe ultraorthodox groups, such as the Naturei Karta sect, do not even pay taxes or participate in elections because they regard the State of Israel as sacrilegious. Yet these same groups now support expansionist policies that ultimately must be carried out by or under the protection of the army in which they refuse to serve. Moreover, both Shas and Yahadut HaTorah, undemocratic in their internal practices (obeying unelected councils of "sages," or elderly rabbis versed in religious law and exegesis) and antidemocratic in their worldview (placing their interpretation of God's command above the law of man or an elected legislature), are using Israel's essentially democratic norms to further their ends.

The NRP is somewhat different. Its supporters serve in the army; indeed, in recent years they have to some degree replaced the young kibbutzniks who traditionally manned the country's elite military units. The party's leaders and rank- and-file define themselves as orthodox rather than ultraorthodox, but many of them also see nothing wrong with disobeying majority opinion and court or government rulings if these collide with divine command as they interpret it.

Yigal Amir, who also saw himself carrying out Divine Will, is, somewhat unusually, a product of the educational systems of both the ultraorthodox and the national religious (orthodox) streams. He spent his childhood in an ultraorthodox Agudat Yisrael-affiliated heder or elementary school; his youth as a boarder in an NRP yeshiva secondary school; and his young manhood-after three years in the Golani Infantry Brigade-in the NRP-affiliated Bar-Ilan, Israel's only religious university and a hothouse of ultranationalism.

It was the last-minute mobilization of the NRP youngsters from the settlements in the territories and in Israel proper and of the ultraorthodox yeshiva students of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak that clinched for Netanyahu the knife-edge victory in the race for the premiership. The skull-capped youths flooded the intersections with flyers and posters ("Only Netanyahu is good for the Jews") and ferried the aged and sick from old-age homes and beds to polling stations. They congregated at many of these and (illegally) badgered those who entered to vote Netanyahu; others voted two and three times, using the identity cards of relatives abroad or dead. Leading rabbis blessed the forty-six-year-old Netanyahu and dubbed his campaign a "Holy War." Indeed, some of them actually used the Muslim term jihad in television interviews, perhaps unconsciously revealing the affinities linking Jewish and Muslim fundamentalism, while denouncing Peres and the Left as "cosmopolitan," "anti-Jewish," "libertines" and "infidels." Voter turnout in the NRP-dominated settlements in the territories and in the ultraorthodox districts in Israel proper ranged from 90 to 100 percent (as compared with 79 per- cent for Israeli Jews in general and 77 percent for Israeli Arabs). In the end, he won an 11-percent edge over Peres among Israel's Jewish majority, more than compensating for Peres's landslide lead (90 percent) among Israel's Arab citizens.

The Role of Iran and Syria

The Netanyahu victory was also substantially aided by the Iranian government, as keenly intent on derailing the peace process and preventing the emergence of Arab-Jewish coexistence in the Middle East as was Amir. Thus, in the run-up to the elections, Iran egged on its Arab allies and proxies, the (Lebanese) Hizballah and the (Palestinian) Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to step up their guerrilla and terrorist warfare against Israel. Occasionally, it intervened directly by sending hired terrorists of its own. (One bomber lost both legs and an arm as a bomb exploded in his East Jerusalem hotel room before he managed to plant it: Under interrogation, he reportedly confessed that he had set out from Beirut where he had been given the bomb by an Iranian "diplomat" inside the Iranian embassy compound.)

During the three months before polling day, there was a steep increase in guerrilla and terrorist attacks. Within Israel, these culminated in the series of suicide bombings by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in downtown Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in late February and early March, which left some sixty Israelis dead and two hundred wounded and the nation severely traumatized. Along the northern border, salvos of Katyusha rockets rained on Israeli settlements in early April, triggering the IDF retaliatory ("Grapes of Wrath") campaign against the Hizballah in southern Lebanon.

The attacks had both direct and indirect negative effects on Peres's election campaign. They undermined many Israelis' sense of personal security as well as faith in Peres's judgment. Netanyahu's campaign strategists exploited the attacks, charging that Arafat-Peres's partner in the peace process-had encouraged the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists or at the very least had done nothing to re- strain them. They also charged Syria, Peres's other peace "partner," with encouraging or not restraining the Hizballah. Peres was blamed for rushing headlong into a peace process with terrorist supporters and paymasters.

The Hizballah offensive was to hurt Peres in a second, indirect way. The Israeli response ("Grapes of Wrath"), with its massive artillery and aerial counter- strikes, almost inevitably resulted in one misdirected salvo against a UN outpost at Kafr Kana harboring hundreds of southern Lebanese villagers. The resulting 100 or so civilian deaths cast a pall over the whole campaign and estranged Israel's Arab minority from the Peres government at a critical moment. ("What really is the difference between Peres and Netanyahu?" they asked.) In the end, and despite a last-minute effort by Arab politicians and Labor party activists to mobilize the Arab vote, a large number of Arab voters either boycotted the polls or cast a blank ballot for the premiership. And some 20,000 Arabs voted for Netanyahu.

President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria contributed to Peres's defeat in another way. Starting in 1993, Rabin's government had been engaged in slow, fitful peace negotiations with the Syrians. Despite Rabin's pre-1992 election promises ("Israel must never abandon the Golan"), the main lines of the deal offered by Israel and supported by Washington seemed clear: Israel would evacuate the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace treaty, which would include major elements of "normalization" and stringent security provisions that would rule out the possibility of a second Syrian surprise attack against Israel a la October 1973. Among the mooted security provisions were a pull-back eastward, beyond Damascus, of the bulk of Syria's armored divisions and one or two early-warning ground stations, on Mount Hermon and elsewhere, manned by Israeli or American troops.

Syria wavered and balked: Asad demanded an Israeli withdrawal to the "4 June 1967 border," which meant that Israel had to forfeit in addition to the Golan Heights several small areas, such as Tel Aziziyat and the area west of Banyas, and Al Hamma, which Syria had gained control of after 1948 but which had been parts of "Palestine" under the British Mandate (and, hence, in Israeli eyes, should have remained part of Israel, Palestine's "successor" state). And Asad refused to agree to early-warning stations remaining on the Golan and Mount Hermon areas after the Israeli withdrawal. It appears that the Rabin government in the last stages of the negotiation even hinted at a measure of flexibility regarding the ground stations and the border areas (for example, agreeing to concede Al Hamma in exchange for Syria "forfeiting" the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee).

Following Rabin's assassination on 4 November 1995, the new prime minister, Peres, had hoped that the Syrians-perhaps now made aware of the fragility of the process-would close a deal in the year that remained before the general elections scheduled for November 1996. Peres had hoped to reach the elections with at least a draft peace settlement with Syria under his belt. To allow time for the deal to gel, Peres rebuffed the plea by many of his followers to "cash in" on Rabin's assassination and call for swift early elections.

But as the months passed, Asad displayed no hint of flexibility; indeed, be- tween November 1995 and February 1996 he seemed to dig in his heels, making many in Israel (and the United States) doubt whether he was really interested in reaching a settlement. Asad seemed to make a point of refusing to take account of Peres's election needs. And so, in the near certainty that no deal was possible before November 1996, Peres decided in January-February 1996 to bring for- ward the elections: Hence, the decision, taken by the Knesset at Peres's initiative, to go to the polls on 29 May.

Thus, Peres arrived at the polls without even a hint of a deal with Syria-and Netanyahu was able to portray him as having offered major concessions (the whole of the Golan Heights) to an Asad uninterested in peace: Peres had been duped by the Arabs and had displayed "weakness" in his headlong rush for peace. Without doubt, Asad's implacability, stonewalling, or, at very least, foot- dragging, whether intentional or otherwise, had played into Netanyahu's hands and helped lose Peres the elections.

Other Domestic Factors

A further element in the Labor defeat was the apparent change of political heart displayed by most of the new Soviet immigrants. In 1992, most (some 60 percent) of them had voted Labor (meaning Rabin); in 1996, most (60-70 percent) voted Netanyahu. Both times, they indulged in what was largely a protest vote.

The 700,000 or so former citizens of the Soviet Union who emigrated to Israel between 1989 and 1996 had never really been Labor supporters. Life under Soviet communism, which in Russia was always tinged by a whiff or more of anti-Semitism, had conditioned them to laud everything Western, capitalistic, nationalist, and non- or anti-Socialist. Hence, their gut instinct when arriving in Israel was anti-Labor (they vaguely equated Labor with communism). But the initial pangs of absorption-unemployment or lack of adequate jobs, housing problems, a measure of social alienation-prompted them to vote against the incumbent government. In 1992, that government was Likud (Shamir). In 1996, more naturally, they were able both to protest against the incumbent and to vote according to their instinct-against Peres and Labor and for Netanyahu and the new immigrants' list, Yisrael BaAiya, led by former Soviet dissident Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky. (The fact that this wave of immigrants was showered with benefits-cheap housing, tax benefits, free tuition, etc.-and privileged like no other in Israel's immigration-laden history proved of no account, strengthening the feeling among many veteran Israelis that the "Russians," as they are called, are a rather a ungrateful lot.)

Lastly, Labor contributed to its own defeat by mounting a poor election campaign. Lulled into complacency by polls that in the last weeks before the vote predicted a comfortable 3-6 per- cent Peres lead, the campaign managers-former ministers Hayim Ramon and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer-decided to portray Peres as an elder statesman, an incumbent prime minister above the fray. But the optimistic forecasts were based on misinformation: The ultraorthodox consistently lied to or refused to cooperate with the pollsters, and many new Russian immigrants and Israeli Arabs apparently said what they thought the pollsters or the government wanted to hear and then voted Netanyahu (or cast blank ballots). Moreover, the misleading polls casting Netanyahu as underdog propelled the Likud activists into hyperactivism on polling day, garnering those last crucial votes.

Labor made almost no use of the Rabin assassination to blacken Netanyahu and the right-wing incitement that had led to the murder. It made no effort to lambaste Netanyahu himself, who was extremely vulnerable to personal attack: He was a self-confessed philanderer, which, properly exploited, could have cost him religious votes; his parents had abandoned Israel and moved to the United States when he was young; and as a young adult he himself had Americanized his name and apparently toyed with the idea of settling in the United States. Finally, he lacked any experience in high government office: Though a deputy minister in the government, he had never served in the cabinet. None of this was adequately exploited in the Labor campaign.


In the end, Netanyahu won by some 29,000 votes, out of some three million cast. But taking advantage of the new election system-for the first time Israelis were asked to cast two ballots, one for the prime minister and the other for the party of their choice-many voters split their vote. The Likud ended up with only 32 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament) to the Labor party's 34 (down from 44 in 1992), while the religious parties won an unprecedented 23 seats: 10 for Shas (up from 6), 9 for the NRP (up from 6), and 4 for Yahadut HaTorah. The new Soviet immigrants, also voting sectorally, gave Yisrael BaAliya 7 seats.

The parliamentary situation-with the Likud's relative weakness-forced Netanyahu into protracted haggling with the smaller religious, centrist, and right- wing parties in order to set up a viable coalition. In the end, he emerged with a government based on sixty-six seats (Likud, Shas, NRP, Yahadut HaTorah, Yisrael BeAliya, and ex-Laborite ex-general Avigdor Kahalani's Third Way, which won four seats campaigning against withdrawal from the Golan while continuing the peace process with the Palestinians). Shas and Yahadut HaTorah are more concerned about religious legislation and financial benefits for their constituencies than about defense and foreign policy. But overall, Netanyahu's government is heavily weighted to the right, with the tone being set by Netanyahu himself, the NRP, three hard-line generals all prominent in the 1982 Lebanon war (Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan, and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai), and three hard-line Likud veterans (Finance Minister Dan Meridor, Health Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, and Science Minister Benny Begin, son of Menachem Begin).

Netanyahu has promised large financial subsidies to each of the sectorial par- ties (housing for the ultraorthodox and the immigrants, additional educational institutions for the ultraorthodox and orthodox, etc.) and has implied concessions in the religious-secular status quo (closure of cinemas and additional roads to traffic on the Sabbath, etc.). These concessions will raise hackles among many "secularists" inside (and outside) the Likud. Already there have been violent police-ultraorthodox clashes in Jerusalem's central Bar Ilan Street, which the ultraorthodox demand be closed on the Sabbath. But these problems will probably be weathered by the coalition partners. Netanyahu's chief problem will lie in the field of foreign and defense affairs.


Netanyahu's government has inherited from Labor a peace process in mid- stride that will be almost impossible to reverse and extremely difficult, given Netanyahu's hard-line views and partners, to push forward. Hours after the election results became known, Netanyahu and his aides hastened to dispense assurances-to Washington, to the Arab capitals, to the Palestinians, and to the Israeli public, half of which had voted against him-of the new government's commitment to the process. This commitment was reiterated during Netanyahu's July visit to the United States. The prime minister assured his interlocutors in the administration, Congress, and the media that he would both press on toward a final settlement with the Palestinians and resume negotiations with Syria. But he repeated his campaign formula that Israel would negotiate "peace for peace" rather than "land for peace" and tabled two new terms or conditions for the agenda: "reciprocity" and "democratization." Netanyahu declared that all progress had to rest on "reciprocal" implementation and observance of past agreements, implying that the Palestinian Authority (PA) had not kept up its end of the bargains struck in Oslo I and Oslo II whereas Israel had. He also implied that a lasting Israeli-Arab peace could only be achieved once the Arab states had turned into democracies.

Congress somewhat mindlessly responded with loud cheers, especially after Netanyahu spoke of the need to begin cutting U.S. civilian aid to Israel and of the need to promote democracy and human rights in the Arab world. President Clinton and his aides were less enthusiastic: The president elicited no firm or concrete assurances from his guest and appeared uncomfortable with Netanyahu's essential inflexibility. The Arab world (at least in public) closed ranks behind Syria and reacted to Netanyahu's statements before Congress and in the flurry of Washington press conferences with consternation, speaking of the new government's "intransigence" and the "imminent death of the peace process." The Arab leaders seem to have been particularly taken aback (and embarrassed) by Netanyahu's reference to democratization and human rights-partly because of the subversive implication vis-a-vis their own undemocratic regimes and partly because of Israel's undemocratic human rights record vis-a-vis the Palestinians in the occupied territories. Most Israeli, American, and Arab commentators dismissed Netanyahu's verbiage as a ploy that would frustrate any progress in the peace process (which in all likelihood was Netanyahu's intention).

Before the elections, Netanyahu had spoken of reconvening an "international peace conference" (a la Madrid in 1991) to counter the Rabin-Peres one-on-one negotiating approach with the PLO, Syria, and Lebanon. There was, of course, a historical irony (and reversal) here: The Likud-that is, Begin and then Shamir for years had fought tooth and nail against an international conference. Indeed, when the international conference was held at Madrid in 1991 (Netanyahu as deputy minister had represented Israel there) and launched the peace process, no progress was achieved as long as Likud was in office, and Shamir later told an Israeli journalist that he had intended to drag out the process without positive issue for ten years.

Since his election, Netanyahu has dropped his call for a renewal of Madrid, apparently realizing that it is unrealistic even as a ploy. He understands that he must continue with the Rabin-Peres model and negotiate directly and bilaterally with the PLO (Netanyahu prefers to speak of the PA), Syria, and Lebanon, albeit with American brokerage. Netanyahu has declared that he is willing to meet Asad and in fact recently, under pressure from the United States, met with Arafat.

But what is he going to negotiate about?

Before going to Washington, Netanyahu published the new coalition government's "Basic Guidelines,"* the political platform drawn up by the Likud leadership and agreed to by the coalition partners. While declaring that the government will act "to widen the circle of peace with all our neighbors," will "conduct negotiations with Syria without preconditions," and will "negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, with the aim of reaching a permanent settlement," the document makes explicit a set of preconditions, or at the very least a set of starting positions, that seem to offer scant hope for the future of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli- Arab relations.

Examination of the Basic Guidelines shows that its various elements tend to cancel each other out, mixing sops to the peace minded with concrete positions of inflexibility. For example, an expressed wish to reach a settlement with Syria and to "expand the circle of peace" founders on the hard rock of the unequivocal: "The maintenance of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan will constitute a foundation for any settlement with Syria." (One could note, however, that the formulators appear to leave a small opening for diplomacy here in the sense that "in the Golan" may not mean "over the [whole of the] Golan." But it is a very small aperture-and it is worth noting that the official translation into English of the guidelines, subsequently transmitted to Washington, speaks of "sovereignty over the Golan" rather than "in the Golan.") Similarly, the expressed wish to reach an accord with the PA seems to be canceled out by the stated intention to limit the outcome by awarding the Palestinians "autonomy" rather than independence; by holding all of Jerusalem under sole Israeli sovereignty; and by continuing to develop the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (Though here, too, one might see an opening for diplomacy in the sense that the guidelines do not explicitly rule out the evacuation and dismantling of settlements in a final peace accord, and the formulation could be construed to mean the expansion of existing settlements rather than the establishment of completely new ones.)

But Netanyahu probably has some months of grace before he must do anything concrete. Judging from Clinton's bland performance during Netanyahu's Washington visit-where he proclaimed that the status of Jerusalem is "nonnegotiable"-the American administration clearly has no intention of leaning seriously on Jerusalem before the presidential elections in November. It is also likely that the Arab states-principally Egypt and Jordan-will await the outcome of the presidential vote and subsequent signals from Washington. Whether in the event of reelection Clinton will turn on the heat and apply the kind of pressure that might persuade Netanyahu to adopt a measure of flexibility remains moot. Most observers believe that the only real pressure Netanyahu might have to face, and the only order of pressure that might result in a change of his policies, would necessarily have to come from the Palestinians themselves, with the backing of the Arab states.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu faces the Palestinians and a set of pressing and in part mutually exclusive commitments and realities. In Oslo II and subsequent partial agreements, the Rabin-Peres government committed Israel to withdraw by the end of March 1996 from the West Bank's cities and hand them over to PA control; to a further IDF redeployment as of September 1996 from certain rural areas of the West Bank; and to release a large though unspecified number of Palestinians from prison. The Peres government duly carried out most of the Oslo II withdrawal provisions regarding the West Bank cities-save Hebron, where 450 Jewish settlers live among some 160,000 Arabs, with some 3,000 additional setters in nearby Kiryat Arba. Withdrawal from Hebron was unilaterally postponed by Peres because of "security" and electoral considerations arising out of the Hamas-Islamic Jihad bombing campaign last February-March. Since the elections, Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that he has been "studying" the problem of Hebron and that while his government is bound by Oslo II (i.e., is committed to withdrawal), it must also take account of Israeli security needs and, especially, those of the Jewish settlers there. He must also take account of the inevitably staunch opposition from various ministers and MKs of his coalition. On the other hand, failing to withdraw from Hebron could generate a new wave of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism against Israel and clashes between Arabs and Jews inside the town. Moreover, non-withdrawal constitutes a violation of an official Israeli commitment and is regarded as such by the PA, the Arab states, and Washington, casting a question mark over the credibility of the Netanyahu regime. In August, Netanyahu linked withdrawal from Hebron to the PA's shutting down its offices in East Jerusalem, which Arafat did later that month.

To some degree, the same considerations-honoring commitments, avoidance or promotion of terrorism and violence, and political objections inside the coalition-apply to the outstanding problems of the rural redeployment and the release of prisoners. And they also apply, in some measure, to the lifting of the closure order vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip and West Bank, in force since the bombing campaign of February-March 1996. The blanket prevention of West Bank and Gaza residents from reaching Israel-mainly to work-was instituted in order to prevent the bombers from getting through, but it has caused enormous economic (and medical and other) hardship for the inhabitants of the territories and could help trigger a renewal of anti-Israeli terrorism. Since the elections, Netanyahu has minutely eased some of the closure provisions, but by and large the closure remains in force.

Netanyahu, of course, was elected on a platform of preventing a renewal of terrorism and would be gravely embarrassed were a new wave of bombings to strike the heart of Israel. But bombings could also provide Netanyahu with an excuse not to carry through with Israel's commitments. Indeed, some observers have suggested that Netanyahu has delayed the withdrawal from Hebron, the easing of the closure, and the release of prisoners precisely in the hope that a fresh outbreak of violence would enable him to hold off indefinitely on implementation on the grounds of "security."


But these thorny issues are minor by comparison with the dilemmas the new government faces with regard to the implementation of the next strategic stage of the Oslo process-the negotiation of the final status settlement with the PLO. Peres and the PA began the talks, as planned, in early May. They are now due to resume if Oslo II is not to be violated. The talks perforce must address the basic problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the future borders between Israel and the Palestinian entity; the nature of that future entity (an independent state, a province confederated with Jordan, an autonomous zone ultimately under Israeli control, etc.); the final status of Jerusalem, where the Palestinians wish to establish their capital; the rehabilitation and resettlement of the Palestinian refugees; and so on. Each of these issues poses a major dilemma for Netanyahu and his coalition partners. Taken together, they baffled men of goodwill such as Rabin and Peres. How men with less goodwill will tackle them remains to be seen.

Netanyahu's insistence on a "peace-for-peace" rather than "land-for-peace" formula; his assertion of Jerusalem's "non-negotiability" and his threats to close down Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem; his insistence on "autonomy" rather than statehood for the Palestinians; and his reiterated commitment, recently confirmed in a formal cabinet decision, to the expansion of Jewish settlements (inevitably at the expense of the Palestinians) all bode ill. The gap between the PLO's positions and Palestinian aspirations and expectations on the one hand and Netanyahu's positions and hopes on the other is simply too wide to be bridged, even given American mediating expertise and goodwill: No final- stage peace settlement between the two seems possible.

Where, then, is history leading us? It is unlikely that Netanyahu and his allies, for all their unhappiness with the accords, can tear them up and invade the PA self-rule areas, which comprise the bulk of the Gaza Strip and most of the cities, towns, and refugee camps of the West Bank. Though militarily achievable, such a regression would mean a small but bloody war (the PLO has some 20,000 lightly armed troops or "policemen," as Israel likes to call them, in the self-governing areas), with an open-ended guerrilla/terrorist war to follow; an almost certain scrapping of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and possible hostilities along all the Israeli-Arab borders; and a complete breakdown of Israeli-American relations, the main anchor of Israeli foreign and defense policies.

The more likely alternative is some sort of de facto freeze on the situation: Netanyahu would either refuse to continue the final-stage negotiations or go through the motions of negotiating while in fact stonewalling, much as Shamir did at the Washington talks following Madrid. The problem is that, within months, Netanyahu's strategy would be recognized for what it was and the Palestinians would be bound to react: The PA would try to mobilize Washington and the Arab states to put pressure on Israel, but one could also expect the outbreak of a new wave of terrorism, possibly with elements within the PA assisting Hamas and Islamic Jihad or mounting anti-Israeli operations of their own. The Palestinian masses, their hopes raised during the peace process, could once again "take to the streets" in some form of a renewed intifada. Given that the main Palestinian cities (Bethlehem, Janin, Nablus, Qalqilya, Ramallah, and Tulkarm and the Gaza Strip cities) and most of the refugee camps are in PA- controlled territory and few Israelis venture into or through them, such an intifada would necessarily be smaller in scope than the original, but a greater element of terrorism/guerrilla warfare could be expected this time, and the IDF would encounter grave difficulties in suppressing it.

Similar considerations apply to the Israeli-Syrian front. It seems unlikely that Netanyahu will manage to square the circle of his own pronouncements which, as we have seen, include making progress toward peace with Syria without ceding any land and certainly without ceding the whole of the Golan Heights. Yet given Asad's track record and pronouncements, the Syrians are most unlikely to accept any agreement that does not include an Israeli cession of the whole of the Golan. Indeed, in the mid-1990s Asad rejected the Rabin-Peres offer of virtually the whole of the Golan, balking at the idea of "normalizing relations" with the Jewish state and of instituting credible security arrangements in exchange for a full withdrawal. Asad is unlikely to agree to anything less from Netanyahu though he will shy off adopting an outright rejectionist, anti-peace stand so as not to alienate Washington. At the same time, if no Israeli concessions are impending after November, Asad may well feel free to intensify the Hizballah's anti-Israeli guerrilla campaign in southern Lebanon at the least.

Some officials in Washington (and many Israelis) hope that Netanyahu will live up to their assessment of him as non-ideological, pragmatic, and opportunistic-and that he will both demonstrate flexibility on the Palestinian and Syrian negotiating tracks and prove able, by playing off one coalition partner against the other, to barrel flexible positions through his government. But the pessimists fear that Netanyahu, who was brought up in a hardline, Revisionist home (his father, the historian Ben-Zion Netanyahu, was, for a time, secretary to Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist-Herut-Likud school of Zionism), will be unwilling to produce and carry such conciliatory positions and that the Israeli- Arab peace process is headed for four years of paralysis dotted by severe bouts of violence inside the territories and along Israel's borders. In such circumstances, Israeli-American and Israeli-Arab relations are bound to suffer, as will the Israeli economy (renewed violence will put off foreign investors and increase Israel's defense expenditure). Perhaps the best that can realistically be hoped for is that midway through the Netanyahu government's term of office, or by its end, enough Israelis will have been persuaded of the need for a return to the peace process to return Labor to power.


Benny Morris, an Israeli historian, is author of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), and Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), which will be reissued in an expanded and revised edition in 1997. 

* See Doc. C1 in JPS issue 101. 


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