Shamir's Flinch

HOPES for Mideast peace wilted further last week following Yitzhak Shamir's concessions to the hardline wing of his Likud Party. If a Palestinian state is ruled out at the onset, if a large chunk of the Palestinian population - those living in East Jerusalem - are excluded from participation in an election, if not a square foot of territory will be given up, and if the intifadah has to end before any discussion can begin - what's there to talk about? Fallout from Mr. Shamir's decision to placate his right wing was immediate. The leadership of the Labor Party, Likud's partner in an uneasy ``national unity'' government, has voted to withdraw from the coalition and thus possibly force new Israeli elections. The Palestine Liberation Organization, which had indicated some interest in the elections proposal, says the Likud conditions killed the plan. The United States, talking to both sides in hopes of fostering negotiations, finds yet another olive branch about to snap.

But there may still be a little flex in that branch. Shamir was cornered at the Likud conference by hardliners led by Ariel Sharon and threatened with a no-confidence vote he'd probably lose. The Prime Minister succumbed, then tried to argue that intra-Likud political dealings didn't change the government's peace plan. If the Sharon conditions can be brought to a vote in the Israeli cabinet and defeated, his argument may carry some weight. This is assuming - and it's a key assumption - that Shamir wants the elections plan to keep breathing.

And if the US can quickly rev its diplomatic machinery to keep both the Israeli government and the PLO engaged with the elections idea, that too could help keep the elections proposal alive.

The Israeli proposal for elections in the occupied territories was always frail, tugged by contrary political forces. Negotiations leading to elections would be extraordinarily tough.

But at a time when the cycle of violence in the region threatens to close in on itself, it would be tragic to see this slight opening blocked by extremists whose political goals are at odds with any constructive moves toward mutual recognition and peace.

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