Whoever wins, Israel's peace is still far away

Patrick Cockburn looks at the impact of this week's elections
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Doves play a big role in the Israeli election. They flutter about symbolising peace in TV commercials and on billboards. Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister, and Binyamin Netanyahu, his right-wing rival, both promise peace with security. At times their rhetoric is interchangeable. It is also deceptive. Both sides are sure of their core supporters, in each case about a third of electorate. Supporters of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians will never vote for Mr Netanyahu and its opponents will never vote for Mr Peres.

Both candidates can afford to dilute their message in pursuit of votes in the centre. Hence the fuzziness of the messages they send. Mr Netanyahu says he will not tear up Oslo, though he is prepared to send the Israeli troops into the autonomous Palestinian enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank. Mr Peres promised an influential settler rabbi that no Israeli settlements will be moved.

Neither candidate is widely liked. Mr Peres was called "an inveterate schemer" by Yitzhak Rabin, the late prime minister. Mr Netanyahu is widely detested by many Israelis as a hypocrite for promising peace without territorial concessions to the Palestinians. More specifically they remember him whipping up crowds at anti-government rallies in the months before Mr Rabin was shot last year.

The television commercials reflect how the media advisers in both campaigns try to redress their candidate's weaknesses. Shimon Peres, 72, who has failed to win at the polls four times, is shown being mobbed at a rally by enthusiastic and nubile young girls (in reality nobody gets that close to the Israeli Prime Minister since Mr Rabin was shot at point-blank range).

On his third marriage and having publicly confessed to adultery on television Mr Netanyahu, who is only 46, wants nothing in his commercials that will remind viewers of women or youth. Instead, he sits behind a large desk, in what appears to be a mock-up of the Oval Office, as he tries to persuade voters that Mr Peres plans to divide Jerusalem.

Polls show that two days from the election Mr Peres is proving marginally more persuasive. He has certainly convinced the US and most foreign governments that if he is re-elected the future of "the peace process" will be secured. But it may be that many Israelis and foreign leaders alike have been looking at the wrong election. This year, for the first time, the prime minister will be directly elected and the 120 members of the Knesset will be chosen separately. The aim of the reform was to weaken the bargaining strength of small religious parties in Israeli politics and to increase the power of the prime minister. Liberal Israelis lamented the new authoritarianism but their grief may have been premature. The real balance of power between prime minister and Knesset is changing less than forecast.

In 1992, Mr Rabin and Labour defeated Yitzhak Shamir and Likud on a platform of making peace with the Palestinians. Labour, its left-wing ally Meretz and the Arab parties could muster 61 seats, enabling them to prevent anybody else forming a government. It was this de facto coalition that was the political basis for the Oslo agreement in 1993. If Likud and its allies had won the 1992 election, there would have been no land- for-peace accords.

It is this majority in the Knesset for peace with the Palestinians that is about to disappear. Opinion polls have for weeks shown Mr Peres marginally ahead in the race for the prime minister's office. But they have also shown Labour and Meretz both losing seats. Even if Mr Peres wins, he will have to shift his government to the right.

That shift is important because Palestinians are getting very little out of the Oslo accords. Gaza and the West Bank have been wholly sealed off for the election period. Businesses are impoverished and the day labourers who used to work in Israel are unemployed. Support for Oslo among Palestinians has been sustained by expectations that things will get better when the final status talks on Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and frontiers resume this year. If they get nothing, Mr Arafat will be seen to have failed.

There are already signs of disillusionment. Last month the Islamic movement Hamas won the student election for the first time at the West Bank university Bir Zeit, which has always had an influential political role. Israelis tend to misunderstand the Palestinian attitude to Oslo. They believe Palestinians will regard it as successful if it marginally improves their lot. Palestinians, on the contrary, originally welcomed Oslo as a stepping stone on the road to statehood. If they do not achieve it, they will reject the whole process.

If Mr Netanyahu is elected, Oslo will be rapidly strangled by quasi-legal restrictions. General Ariel Sharon, one of his chief lieutenants, has spelt out Likud's definition of autonomy, which differs little from occupation. But if Mr Peres is prime minister in a week's time, the outlook for a final resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians may still not be good.

As foreign minister, Mr Peres was the architect of Oslo. His ability to manoeuvre complemented Mr Rabin's ability to take decisions. Since he became Prime Minister, Mr Peres has shown a fondness for half measures. He failed to call an immediate election, which he would have won, but then decided to bring it forward anyway. He may win the re-election on Wednesday but it may be doubted if he will be able to turn that victory into permanent peace.