Israel's long, painful transition

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The Independent Online
JERUSALEM - At a seminar I attended here this week we discussed the 'self-government interim agreement' between the government of Israel and Yasser Arafat's PLO. We heard directly from the government of Israel: Shimon Peres addressed us on Sunday, and Yitzhak Rabin on Monday. The PLO was not directly represented, but the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs was. We understood them to represent a spectrum of views within the broad consensus of the Palestinian supporters of Arafat's initiative.

I formed the impression that the interim is likely to be long and often painful, that it is vulnerable on both sides and, finally, that if the experiment succeeds, there is a real prospect for the emergence of a Palestinian state at peace with Israel. The most urgent thing, at present, to realise is the vulnerability: specifically, the asymmetrical character of that vulnerability.

Why should the agreement be more likely to collapse at the Israel end than at the PLO end? The answer is simple: Israel is a democracy. This means that those who concluded the interim agreement on behalf of Israel can be voted out. Those who concluded it on behalf of 'the PLO' cannot. Arafat may well be in a minority within the shadowy membership of the PLO. He may at present be supported by no more than half the membership of his own core organisation, Fatah. But its policies are not determined by a count of heads, but by a leader and his followers. At some point, a convention, handpicked by Arafat, will meet as the PLO and duly endorse his policies. And the international community, for adequate reasons, will recognise the validity of that transaction without pedantic inquiry into its democratic basis.

Unfortunately, or otherwise, Yitzhak Rabin and his colleagues are not in a position to edit the electorate of Israel with the artistry available to Arafat in the composition of his constituency. The signs this week were that if the Israeli electorate had now to be consulted, nationally, the government would fall and its successors would either repudiate the agreement or attach such new conditions to it as would oblige Arafat to repudiate it.

Unwisely, the Israeli Labour government declared in advance that it would consider last week's local elections a test of the feelings of the electorate towards the agreement. By that test, the agreement failed spectacularly. The most conspicuous and tragic symbol of its apparent failure was the defeat of the great mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. No mayor has ever done more for a city than Kollek did for Jerusalem in the years of his long and enlightened administration. Yet its citizens rejected him. He perished, not because of the interim agreement, but as a victim of God. The pious Jews turned out en masse to vote for his opponent; the pious Muslims, whom he had striven so long to conciliate, stayed home and left him to the electoral mercy of Allah.

The government would probably do better in national elections, with a high electoral turn out. All the local elections showed is that the agreement does not evoke enthusiasm. The general mood of the Israeli population towards it appears to be one of 'wait and see'. The government is rightly determined not to be deflected by terrorist attacks organised by the agreement's Arab enemies. But the continuation of such attacks may still undermine both government and agreement.

The Israeli public especially resents the fact that the government's Palestinian partners fail to condemn terrorist attacks on Israelis. Last weekend, near Hebron, terrorists attacked the car of Rabbi Haim Druckman, wounding the rabbi and killing his driver. Responsibility for the deed was claimed both by the fundamentalist Hamas and Nayef Hawatmeh's Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (which is one of the member organisations making up the PLO). Arafat's part of the PLO (now alias 'the PLO') is not recorded as having had any comment to offer. But the Jerusalem Post published a cartoon showing Rabin reproaching a laughing Arafat with the words: 'I know you have nothing to do with the violence, I know you would never resort to violence, but could you please utter just one word of disapproval? Or at least stop laughing?'

I don't know how much commentary of that kind the government can take. I am reminded, ominously, of a Northern Ireland parallel: the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974. That agreement - to which, unlike the later Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Ulster Unionists were a party - set up a cross-community executive for Northern Ireland. The Sunningdale Unionists believed that their community would accept the agreement, because they wanted peace. No doubt they would have if they had got peace. But the IRA was able to demonstrate the hollowness of the promise by blowing the heart out of Belfast's main thoroughfare, Royal Avenue. The Unionists of Belfast revolted and brought down the power-sharing executive. The Sunningdale Unionists were all rejected, in favour of hardliners, in the next elections. The peace process between the two communities stalled. I hope nothing of the kind happens to the interim agreement over the territories, but the danger is clearly there.

Our seminar, placid and academic though it was, none the less experienced shockwaves from the stormy electoral and security environment. On the Sunday, we were due to hear an address from the mayor of Jerusalem. We had hoped to hear a victorious Teddy Kollek; instead we heard from the new mayor, Ehud Olmert. Mr Olmert did not explicitly repudiate the agreement, but it was clear that, with Labour in power, he will ruthlessly exploit the 'at least stop laughing' factor to put Labour out. After that, it would be quite hard to put the agreement together again.

On the following day, we heard the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. This was quite a traumatic experience. The subject of our seminar was 'Relations between Europe and the Middle East'; many of the participants belonged to the European foreign policy establishment, a corpus of which the Prime Minister of Israel at present takes quite a jaundiced view. His basic point is that Europeans have cold-shouldered Israel for the past 20 years for refusing to talk to the PLO, and the government that has taken the historic step of sitting down with the PLO is still being cold- shouldered. Belying his reputation as a wooden speaker, Rabin spoke rapidly, passionately, in a voice which by times sank to a whisper and rose to a roar; not by artifice but from deep emotion. He sounded like a man fighting for survival; he was in fact facing a vote of no confidence that night, and survived it. I had hoped that our conference would devote some time to consideration of Rabin's address; this did not happen. The present government of Israel needs and deserves all the help it can get and attention to what its Prime Minister has to say is a precondition for help.

If the agreement is to be rescued, it will have to be rescued by Arafat's Palestinians; not for Israel's sake but for their own. The decisive test will come when an Arafat administration takes over in Gaza and Jericho. At that time the rejectionists, including Hamas, will seek to use those areas as a base for attack on Israeli targets. If the Arafat administration allows that to happen, the agreement will be repudiated by Israel, in deed if not in words. If, on the other hand, the Arafat administration takes on its own extremists, and succeeds in crushing them, the agreement will become a working partnership. In that event, the idea of a Palestinian state, at peace with Israel, becomes a serious possibility.

The present transitional period is exceedingly delicate, especially where Syria is concerned. On the one hand, no stable settlement can be achieved in the area without Syrian consent, and that consent will not be available until Israel cedes the Golan. On the other hand, for the government of Israel now to agree to cede the Golan would be to seal the doom of this government, and also of the interim agreement. Jerusalem's private message to Damascus right now should be and probably is: 'We want to talk seriously with you about the Golan, but we can't do it yet. Don't rock the boat for us in Gaza and Jericho. If we get results there, we can meet you over the Golan.'

In the meantime what is needed as a matter of priority if the agreement is to survive is more international encouragement for the Israeli government. Further pressure for more concessions at this particular time can bring the whole thing down.

(Photograph omitted)