Paralysis at the Top in Israel

Yoel Marcus is a columnist and member of the editorial board of Haaretz.

Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres, the two main partners in the government of Israel, find themselves these days in the position of two opponents caught in a clinch in the boxing ring: too tired to strike the winning blow, too antagonistic to admit defeat. And so, six weeks after the outbreak of unrest in the occupied territories, these rivals/partners hang on to each other, with neither the strength to fall nor the will to renew the fight. Although Peres has said that he might be interested in moving the elections forward from November to spring, his suggestion fell on deaf ears.

"Nothing unusual has happened," says Shamir, who at 73 is not eager to give up an additional assured year as prime minister. "We would be insane to quit the government and leave it entirely in the hands of the Likud," says Peres. It is clear that neither of them knows for whose benefit continued unrest in the territories is working, unrest caused by the political paralysis in which this government is so expert. And neither of them has the strength, or the inclination, to test public opinion in an early election.

The riots in the territories took the government by surprise: Peres was in Brazil and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the United States, and neither thought that the situation warranted an early return. At home, Shamir assumed that this was merely another of those passing outbursts, and gave the army a free hand to deal with it in the manner that has been routinely employed since 1967.

But the rioting spread like wildfire. During a one-day strike called by Israeli Arabs in sympathy with their brothers in the territories, stones were thrown in Jaffa and Nazareth and along interurban routes in the heart of Israel. This first open expression of solidarity in 20 years stunned the Israeli public.

Soldiers trained in full-scale warfare found themselves helpless when faced with children throwing stones, women cursing, youngsters burning tires, shopkeepers closing up. Unlike former instances, these riots were not orchestrated from "above" and outside, but grew from the grass roots, nurtured from the bottom by unknown local, sometimes neighborhood, leaders--a phenomenon seemingly hinting at a popular uprising in the making.

The army, which on television often appeared to be as bungling as the Keystone Kops, increasingly was shooting, wounding and killing from anxiety, with each incident adding fuel to the flames. Everyone in Israel was talking of "a new situation."

It was some time before the army and the politicians realized that this was no passing phase of limited scope. What the authorities minimized as "disturbances" were everywhere, surprising in their intensity and their endurance. "We ran out of punishments," security officials complained. The most severe punishments--banishment and demolition of houses--were now hard to impose, whether due to American pressure or because the Arabs themselves had found a way to prevent the widespread use of such measures by appealing to the Supreme Court.

The continuation of the riots made nerves and tempers snap in the national-unity government. "I told you so," was the bitter word from Peres, whose initiative for negotiations with King Hussein under the aegis of an international conference had been torpedoed by Shamir. The Likud ministers claimed that it was Peres' courting of Hussein and willingness to make concessions that had caused the riots. Yet, as has happened several times in the past in this strange government in which two bitter ideological rivals coexist in a marriage of convenience, Peres and Shamir joined forces in a weird fraternity behind Rabin and the "iron fist" policy in the territories. "They have to understand that violence will get them nowhere," said Rabin. "Law and order must first be restored, and only then can we talk." In this way the rival partners drew the perfect blueprint for a vicious circle: Nobody believed that when quiet was stored the present paralytic government would be capable of talking with anyone about anything serious.

It is still too soon to tell whether what is happening in the territories will have any effect on the political deadlock--or on the indolent mentality of the Israeli voter, who prefers a government that includes "everybody" rather than having to choose one leader above the others.

Among the intelligentsia and liberals, one senses deep concern for the effect on Israeli society. There is fear of civil war, in the style of Ireland or Lebanon, and fear that the situation may arouse feelings of despair among the silent majority because of the weakness of the known politicians and the longing for strong leadership.

In the Likud they believe that their assessment of "real Arab intentions" has now been proved. "They don't want their own state; they want Tel Aviv," they say in Likud, and they are sure that the electorate is becoming more extreme in its stand. Peres' Labor party thinks just the opposite. But neither leader is really prepared to test his theory at the ballot box at the wrong moment. So they cling to each other in a paralyzed and confused government that lacks self-confidence.

Meanwhile, between helplessness and brooding about "the iron fist," the Israeli public is awakening from its long, deep sleep. The clock is ticking; the alarm has already rung.

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