Israel: Why Rabin Is Rushing To Get A Peace Deal Done

In Israel, skepticism about the Middle East peace process is running high. Israeli settlers on the West Bank are defiantly expanding their outposts. The public is very uneasy about a possible deal with Syria. So why is Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in such a hurry to give Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yassir Arafat power over West Bank towns? And why is Rabin's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, so assiduously courting the Syrians, even holding out the once unspeakable possibility of a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights?

The answer is that the aging Labor leaders have staked their careers on wrapping up peace with the Arabs. But their time is running out. With Israeli elections looming in October, 1996, the deal window is closing fast. The consensus is that the peace process will essentially be frozen after next spring.

FLAK. What's more, the coming political season promises to be wild and unpredictable. Both Rabin and Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu face challenges within their parties. Israel's traditional political groupings are fragmenting, with narrow interest-based movements and parties making inroads. In the past, small religious parties often wielded the balance of power. Now, they will be joined by new, untried political groups. The Israeli political scene "is going to be more complex than at any time in its history," says Tel Aviv University political scientist Chanan Cristal.

Making it all the harder for Rabin is the flak he's getting from within his own party. Recently, a large group of disgruntled Labor supporters opposed to Rabin's negotiations with the PLO and the Syrians formed a movement called the Third Way. Labor ranks were already weakened last year when the young star Haim Ramon resigned as Health Minister and took control of the Histadrut trade union as an independent. Rabin is wooing Ramon, fearing that he'll start a new party.

Rabin could also be hurt by the actions of Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet human-rights activist. He just formed a new political movement aimed at improving the lot of 600,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Those voters were key in Labor's stunning electoral success in national elections in 1992. But many are now increasingly disenchanted with poor housing and an inefficient labor market and perceived discrimination.

Rabin's cause would seem hopeless were it not for similar problems that beset his Likud rival, the telegenic Netanyahu. Opinion polls had shown Netanyahu far ahead of Rabin. But in late June, Netanyahu's biggest rival in the Likud, Moroccan-born David Levy, announced he was breaking away to form a new party. Levy, a hero to North African Jews, could take as many as 15% of Likud's voters with him. His entry has also given Rabin a slight lead in the polls.

Even though Rabin's chances to stay on as Prime Minister after 1996 have improved, he could well end up leading a split government. When Israelis go to the polls late next year, they will for the first time be casting ballots for Prime Minister--not just for parties. That opens up the possibility of the elections producing a Prime Minister from one major party and a parliamentary coalition led by the other. It is hard to imagine a better recipe for gridlock.

So Israeli politics will be the wild card in the peace process. There is a big opportunity now because Rabin badly wants to wrap things up with the Syrians and the PLO. But unless major progress comes soon, peace will probably have to wait.

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