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Israel’s Politicians Put Country Above Party, at Least for a Moment

<i> Hirsch Goodman, a veteran Middle East journalist, is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy</i>

The decision by Likud and Labor to enter into a national-unity government, despite the threats and pressures from the satellite parties that stood to gain much from a narrow coalition, is one of the few times (if not the only one) in Israel’s history that politicians have put country above party. The question now is: What will be the national agenda of this unity government that has a high potential for division? Cynics see the government as a train with an engine tugging at either end. Optimists hope that it will basically represent Israel’s consensus until clear political decisions become necessary. Whatever, almost anything will be better than the past seven weeks of watching our politicians throw themselves at the feet of the golden calf of coalition-building extortion.

Optimists and cynics aside, this government has every chance of being one of the most important in Israel’s history. Clearly, de facto , if not de jure , American recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization is a major change for Israel. And we know that the Soviets are planning a comprehensive Middle East peace initiative. There also is a clear shift in Egypt’s policies toward Israel, and the relationship can be expected to become more tense as the intifada continues, as it will, in tandem with the PLO’s growing international legitimacy. Syria is edging its way back into the Arab mainstream, and experts predict that before the decade is out there will be Jordanian-Egyptian-Syrian conciliation and tacit Syrian-Iraqi cooperation. Finally, there is the advent of a new American Administration facing new diplomatic frontiers at a time of major geostrategic change.

There are domestic issues, too, that Israel cannot meet divided.

Unemployment is more than 7% and as high as 20% in some developing towns. Jewish populations in the Galilee and the Negev are dwindling. The cost-of-living index and interest rates are creeping up, and the Labor Party’s extensive financial empire has to be redefined. The country’s health and education systems need overhauling. The military and aircraft industries, still reeling from the cancellation of the Lavi, have to be solidified. Emigration has to be discouraged and immigration bolstered. Soldiers completing their duty must be assisted financially and professionally--not end up working for Yoske’s Moving Co. in New York. Religious-secular tensions have to be ameliorated, and we have to heal our relationship with diaspora Jewry in the wake of the “who’s a Jew” issue. The electoral system needs change.

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We can see the common problems. Is there a common agenda? There unquestionably is. Both parties are dedicated to preserving Israel’s relationship with the United States. Both parties agree that the Camp David accords are the basis for any future movement. Both parties (albeit the Likud with qualifications) are not opposed to free elections taking place in the West Bank and Gaza. Neither party could rationally be opposed to candidates standing in that election who are of the right age, residents of the territories and have no criminal record--not a stint in Ansar 3, but a bona fide criminal record recognized as such by international law. These criteria would eliminate the candidacy of terrorists with blood on their hands and allow for a legitimate, representative Palestinian leadership to emerge that could negotiate the beginnings of a solution.

This leadership will undoubtedly call itself the PLO, and it will undoubtedly include many of those who are currently under Israeli detention. But it is a leadership that both the Likud nd Labor can negotiate with as the legitimate representatives of a people we have to find a better way of living with. The time has come to allow the occupied territories’ “Unified Leadership” to come out from the underground and for Israel’s unity government to meet it head on.

Elections are a mechanism that Americans intend to encourage, for they provide a logical bridge between the PLO and Israel. The Egyptians and the Jordanians are both poised to pressure Arafat to sanction them. The United Nations has indicated that it would oversee and support them. The Soviets would not oppose them. They are probably going to be the focus of future diplomatic activity, and we should be prepared for this eventuality.

There are numerous common areas of action for this government along the course of future diplomacy in the region. In January last year Yitzhak Shamir wrote a 16-page letter to George Shultz outlining his vision for the future. That letter brought Shultz back into the Middle East process after a long recess. In it Shamir reportedly made several critical points, including that he was prepared for sweeping transitional arrangements, leading to a final status agreement--a fundamental turnabout in Shamir’s previously stated position. The prime minister also offered a somewhat convoluted explanation that he was not totally opposed to the concept of exchanging territory for peace.

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The Americans (and Shimon Peres), who know that they have little to no chance of budging Shamir on the issue of an international conference, will concentrate on pushing him to keep to the word of his letter, starting with elections in the territories (which are not specifically mentioned in Shamir’s letter). For the Americans this will represent progress toward a changing environment in which peace can be seriously discussed.

The prime minister will be able to explain away any progress that might be made in the context of autonomy arrangements. For Labor, this will be movement toward creating a bona fide Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate in the future. For the Palestinians, the process will be seen as the first stage in a transfer of authority and self-rule leading to an independent Palestinian state.

History has thrust four men--Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Arens--all with very different styles and political philosophies, together at a crucial point. Despite their differences, they could not be better suited to deal with current events. Arens, as the foreign minister, will be the point man in Israel’s relations with the United States. He is a former ambassador to Washington and a former defense minister, and he understands the need for a healthy relationship. Arens will have far more influence over Shamir than Peres would have if he had stayed on as foreign minister. Now, as the finance minister, Peres is the only person with the authority to overhaul sensitive economic enterprises and deal with the kibbutzim in a serious way without being suspected of political vindictiveness.

The right men at the right time? History will judge. For now, it’s about time that the optimists have a good day.

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