THE Middle East peace process, moving ahead with unexpected success, hangs on several threads. One of them is Israeli public opinion. In Israel's 1996 elections, a Likud victory over the ruling Labor Party could torpedo the peace process.
Given the recent spate of suicide bombings in Israel, one might think that Israelis are ready to dump Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and trash the peace process. Yet Israelis are not now inclined to do so.
On July 27, 1995, three days after the suicide bomb attack on bus No. 20 in Ramat Gan, 47.7 percent of Israelis polled said that their personal security was worse or much worse since the peace process began. But that was down from March, when that figure was 64.4 percent.
One explanation for this is that Israelis are growing accustomed to terrorism. Another is that the Israeli public's respect for the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is growing. In January 1995, only 20 percent of Israelis polled believed the PA was working to prevent acts of terrorism; by July this had risen to 37.6 percent. In March, 63.6 percent did not think the Palestinians were carrying out the Oslo agreement; by July that was down to 45.3 percent. Article 15 of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement signed recently in Washington further binds the parties "to prevent acts of terrorism, crime, and hostilities directed against each other...." It also codifies means of cooperation to accomplish this goal. While this will not stop suicide attacks in Israel, it may decrease their frequency.
The Israeli public, despite its chronic insecurity, has come a long way. As recently as 1988, a random sampling of 1,200 Israelis showed that, by a margin of 64 percent to 32 percent, they would not negotiate with the PLO, even if it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel's right to exist. But in a September 1995 poll, Israelis support the Interim Agreement by 51 percent to 47 percent. For their part, 70 percent of Palestinians are in favor of peace talks, although 60 percent doubt they will lead to lasting peace.
PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, for his part, speaks out of both sides of his mouth, trying to mollify his Palestinian rivals while not scaring Israelis. In Western circles, he speaks glowingly of peace; in Arab circles, he praises the "martyrs" - bombers - and refers to jihad, or holy war. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres dismisses Mr. Arafat's invective as mere rhetoric. And the Israeli government's position is that Arafat will be judged by deeds, not words. But those words unnerve many Israelis.
The Interim Agreement may change Arafat's words, however. It requires the PLO to revise its charter, which calls for Israel's destruction, and enjoins the parties "to abstain from incitement, including hostile propaganda" and to prosecute violators in their jurisdiction. Rabin's success at the polls depends in part on whether Israelis view the PA as effective against Islamic militants. A Likud victory in 1996 will depend on whether Labor further solidifies the peace accord prior to the election.
While Israel's tradition is to respect the agreements made by previous administrations, Likud front-runner Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Israel is giving away land for dubious promises of peace. While his views would likely change if he were prime minister as opposed to a campaigner, and Likud leaders have privately said they will not roll back existing accords, Likud would run a far harder bargain than Labor on any future issues.
At present, the Israeli public supports the peace process. But the thread of public opinion is fragile.