The end of a 'terrible, dangerous' peace

Whoever wins Israel's elections this month, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians stand to lose
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The Independent Online
In his cell in Beersheba in southern Israel, Yigal Amir must be feeling satisfied. He knows that he has succeeded in his aim of stopping the Oslo peace process by assassinating Yitzhak Rabin six months ago.

Whoever is elected Prime Minister of Israel in 10 days' time will lead a coalition more conservative than the present government, even if it is Shimon Peres, who inherited Rabin's position and who is seeking to sell himself to the Israeli voters as the candidate who will bring peace.

Since the suicide bombings in February and March, Mr Peres has received fulsome backing from President Bill Clinton as the man who must remain in office if the "peace process" is to continue. But even before the polls open on 29 May, it is becoming clear that Mr Peres and Labour will in future be very restricted on what they can offer Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. Almost unnoticed, the political changes feared by the outside world have already occurred.

The Oslo accords - seeking to resolve the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis which has lasted for most of this century - were the result of the victory of Labour, led by Rabin, in the 1992 general election. Israel was willing to give up some of the territory gained in the 1967 war;in secret talks, negotiators agreed to recognition of the PLO and Palestinian autonomy by stages in the West Bank and Gaza. There were to be talks, starting this month, about the future of Jerusalem, refugees, Israeli settlements and frontiers.

Mr Rabin could get parliamentary agreement for these terms because Labour and its left-wing allies in the Meretz party had won 56 seats out of 120 in the Knesset. Together with five Arab-Israeli MPs, Labour had an effective majority, but it is very unlikely that this de facto coalition will win again.

This month, for the first time, Israelis will vote directly for the prime minister. Mr Peres faces a close race against Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, but even if he wins, polls show that Labour and Meretz will lose six or more seats in the election for the Knesset. Prof Baruch Kimmerling, a political analyst at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, predicts that "if Peres is elected he will be forced to form a new coalition, entirely different from the one set up after the 1992 elections".

As a result Mr Peres is looking for new allies - all of them to his right. There are two new parties - the "Third Way", which split from Labour because it rejects withdrawal from the Golan heights, and one representing Russian immigrants, under Nathan Sharansky - which together are likely to win five or six seats. Mr Peres has also been flirting with the religious parties.

Last week the government reached an agreement with Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun, a settler from Ofra, north of Jerusalem, who gave his support in return for a promise that no Israeli settlements in the occupied territories will be uprooted. The government further promised that most settlements will remain under Israeli sovereignty under a final agreement with the Palestinians.

This is very bad news for Mr Arafat. The number of Palestinians who have benefited so far from the Oslo accords is very limited. Gaza and the West Bank have been wholly sealed off from Israel and east Jerusalem, forcing Palestinian labourers to stay at home in their villages. But Mr Arafat could claim that things would get better, suggesting that once the Israeli elections were out of the way Mr Peres would lift the closure and get back to serious negotiations.

It does not look as if this is going to happen. Palestinian support for Mr Peres stems from the fear that the Oslo accords will immediately go into the deep freeze if Mr Netanyahu is returned as Prime Minister. General Ariel Sharon, his chief lieutenant, last week described them as "a terrible and dangerous agreement", and explained how Likud would reinterpret them in so narrow a way that the Palestinians would be left with little autonomy. The problem for Mr Arafat is that, even if Mr Peres wins, he may get little more from him than his rival, and certainly not enough to satisfy the 2.3 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.

As foreign minister Mr Peres was the architect of the Oslo accords, but his political mistakes in the six months since he became Prime Minister are likely to bury them. Moshe Arens, a leading right-wing politician but a perceptive critic, writes of Mr Peres that he is "a doer, supremely confident in his own judgment, having little respect for the opinion of others. His blustering overconfidence had led him at times to recklessness in word, and on occasion even in deed."

In his long career - he was head of the Israeli defence industries in 1953 - Mr Peres has been at different times a prominent hawk and a leading dove. Since Rabin's death he has tried to be both simultaneously, confusing his friends but failing to conciliate his enemies. He has reinforced his reputation for seeing himself as the master of the cunning manoeuvre, but in practice doing everything by halves.

If Mr Peres had called an election immediately after the assassination in November, he would have been returned with a strong majority in the Knesset. Instead he let the advantage slip away. In December he withdrew the Israeli army from West Bank towns, but on 4 January the Israeli Shin Bet security service arranged the assassination of Yahyah Ayyash, the Hamas master bomber, in the heart of Gaza. The Shin Bet wanted to restore its reputation after failing to protect Rabin, and Mr Peres wanted to show he was tough on security. Retaliation was inevitable, and when it came in the shape of four suicide bombs killing 63 people, it revived the political fortunes of Mr Netanyahu and the right.

President Clinton rushed to the rescue of Mr Peres, but may have done him more harm than good. He organised the Sharm el-Sheikh conference in Egypt, attended by 27 world leaders, as a show of solidarity with Israel. The focus was entirely on "terrorism", and not on Palestinian grievances. The US also supported the closure of the West Bank and Gaza. Since the end of the Gulf war, pressure from Washington had been an essential underpinning of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but under Mr Clinton this pressure has ebbed away.

Certainty of US diplomatic support also probably gave Mr Peres the confidence to launch Grapes of Wrath, the 17-day Israeli bombardment of Lebanon. Here all his weaknesses were on display: if the plan was to retaliate for Katyusha rocket attacks on northern Israel, the operation was too much; as an attempt to weaken Hizbollah and Syria, it was too little. There is little sign the Israeli voter was impressed.

For Palestinians and Israelis, the "peace process" is becoming a slogan without content. "A new Peres government will not cancel the accords with the PLO or return to Gaza by its own initiative," says Prof Kimmerling, but after the election they will unravel anyway "because in the new political situation Israel will not be able to continue signing agreements with the Palestinians on conditions acceptable to them".