Victory's reward will be a struggle to unite a nation

Israel and Northern Ireland: Two elections born of violence, overshadow ed by the fear of turmoil to come
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The Independent Online
The Israeli election campaign started when Yigal Amir fired his pistol into the back of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, six months ago. Shimon Peres, who succeeded him, could have called an election then and won it with ease.

He decided to wait. He expected the situation to become calmer. Instead it grew a great deal worse. Since last November there has been a devastating act of violence almost every month. In February and March suicide bombs killed 63 people in Israel and in April almost 200 people died in the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon.

Will the narrow election victory for Mr Peres, predicted last night by the exit polls, end the cycle of violence? The fact that - even by the early hours of this morning - Israeli television was predicting a dead heat, only served to highlight the depth and bitterness of the divisions in Israeli society .

The race had been presented in simple terms. If Mr Peres, architect of the Oslo accords, was elected, the peace process wold move inexorably forward. If Binyamin Netanyahu, his Likud rival , beat him, then Oslo would unravel as he expanded settlements and sent troops into Gaza and Nablus.

It is not that simple. While it has been a tight race between Mr Peres and Mr Netanyahu, the centre-left coalition committed to negotiations with the Palestinians which won the election in 1992 has lost its majority. The victory of the religious parties and the Russian immigrants means that Mr Peres's next government will be far less flexible in future. And this happens at a moment when negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have reached their critical phase.

Most Israelis wanted to pull out of the slums of Gaza and the Palestinian towns of the West Bank. But next month talks are to begin on Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, refugees and frontiers. The election yesterday showed that Israel is unlikely to offer terms the Palestinians will accept.

As a real political process - bringing real benefits and change to millions of people - Oslo is already dead. The "peace process" has become a slogan without substance. It was always vulnerable because it was drawn out over such a long period and could always be derailed by a bomb. But what has really doomed the most ambitious attempt to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is that neither side has got much out of it.

Israelis may privately respond that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, is lucky to have got anything at all. The balance of power in the region is against him. He has no military option. He depends on the international community for funds. The US has abandoned its former mediating role, which created the political basis for the Oslo accords, for uncritical support for Israel and Mr Peres.

For the moment, Mr Arafat appears grateful for anything he can get. He can probably keep order with 30,000 troops and police in the enclaves he controls. But in the longer term a very simple truth is being disregarded: The differences between Israel and the 6 million Palestinians in the world are not being resolved, which was the original intention of Oslo.

Mr Peres is to blame for much of what has gone wrong. He was at his best when he worked with Mr Rabin since they exactly complemented each other. Mr Rabin was decisive but often unsubtle; Mr Peres has a taste for manoeuvres, but seldom acted decisively. A recent example of this was Israel's bombardment of Lebanon, with its excessive use of force and uncertain goals.

The tide has already turned for Oslo, regardless of whether it is Mr Peres or Mr Netanyahu who sits in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem. It is no good Mr Peres or President Clinton blaming every bomb and bullet on Iran. The dissatisfaction of millions will express itself violently, if all other forms of dissent seem impotent.

If Mr Peres's re-election victory is confirmed there will be a collective sigh of relief in Washington and in capitals around the world. But the result confirms what became apparent on the night Mr Rabin died: Israel's divisions are too too deep to make a lasting peace. Overall, the election of 1996 neatly marks the end of the peace process which the election of 1992 began.

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