Israel's Peace Constituency

Although Benjamin Netanyahu edged out Shimon Peres in Israel's recent vote for prime minister, it would be wrong to say that with this election Israel rejected the peace process.

Many of the key elements of the Oslo accords enjoy widespread Israeli support, especially the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and the population centers of the West Bank, and the creation of the Palestinian Authority as a vehicle for Palestinian Arab national aspirations. The peace treaty with the Kingdom of Jordan, which could not have been achieved without the prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements, is immensely popular.

Israelis balked when they saw that the peace process, as it moved forward vis--vis the Palestinians, failed to end terrorist violence against Israeli civilians. The four bus bombings this past winter profoundly undermined Israelis' support for continuing to give Palestinians what they wanted without achieving personal security for themselves.

Israeli voters turned on Mr. Peres when he failed, as the political leader of the nation, to support them psychologically in their trauma and distress, and they broke with him when he minimized the Palestinian role in such terrorism, asking them to believe that it was solely the responsibility of Iranian-backed Islamic fundamentalists.

Peres asked Israelis to choose "hope" over "fear," but a significant number of voters decided that Peres's "hope" was actually wishful thinking and what he called "fear" was hard-nosed realism.

Successful political campaigns are all about making a strong positive connection between the candidate and the voter. Peres failed in this effort. As the authoritative Jerusalem Report declared, "The Prime Minister gave the impression that political campaigning was beneath him. He had a country to run."

The new Knesset reveals a pattern of careful voter decisionmaking. Peres lost, but supporters of the peace process, Jewish and Arab, made a respectable showing. The Labor Party and its ally, Meretz, won a total of 43 seats, and the two largely Israeli-Arab parties, strong peace-process supporters, won 9 seats, for a "peace camp" total of 52.

Taken together, these four parties, allied with two others that gave qualified support to the peace process, would have allowed Peres to be Israel's first prime minister able to form a government without the assistance of any religious party. This center-left coalition died in embryo, but its latent presence in the new Knesset is evidence that a potential majority exists for the peace process.

Mr. Netanyahu's Likud bloc won only 32 seats, a sharp drop of 8 seats since the last election, hardly an endorsement of the party from which the holders of the key posts in the new Cabinet will be drawn.

In turning away from Peres, voters did not turn to Netanyahu's Likud. Instead, they voted for parties that reflected their ethnic and religious attachments.

To form a government enjoying the support of a majority of 61 Knesset members, Netanyahu must either embrace the lukewarm secular supporters of the peace process or mortgage his mandate to rule to the religious parties whose concern for the status of Orthodox Judaism in Israel far outweighs the issues of peace and security.

Netanyahu has reaped the harvest of voter unhappiness with Peres. To govern successfully he must become the master of a Knesset that is the most divided in Israel's history - with a weak center and powerful competing ethnic and religious interests. How well he succeeds will determine the fate of the peace process.

*Michael Neiditch is the president of the Jerusalem Foundation Inc. of the United States. These views are his own.

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