Pursuing Peace in Israel

US support for security must include continued aid to Palestinians

It's important to face reality now that Benjamin Netanyahu has been sworn in as Israel's prime minister after narrowly winning the election. Israel will have to deal with serious challenges to its security and long-term interests if Mr. Netanyahu's campaign pledges become state policy.

In an Israeli electorate polarized almost exactly between Netanyahu and his opponent Shimon Peres, there was one issue that enjoyed consensus support. Leaders of both major parties appealed to voters by arguing that their policies would best protect Israeli security.

The only policy that will successfully enhance security for Israeli citizens is vigorous pursuit of the peace process. The 100-year war between Israel and the Palestinians, and deadly tension between Israel and Syria and Lebanon, will end only when both sides attain their basic goals through an exchange of occupied territory for firm security arrangements and a lasting peace.

If Netanyahu converts three major campaign promises into policy, he will undermine the peace process, thereby weakening Israeli security.

Territorial compromises

Netanyahu has pledged to divert Israeli funds now dedicated to supporting the Palestinian Authority (PA), some $330 million per year, to expanding settlements in the West Bank. Settlements constitute the essence of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

The Labor government, first under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, then under Prime Minister Peres, wisely realized it could achieve peace and security only through territorial compromise and an end to settlement expansion. Renewed building in the settlements can only spark Palestinian rage that will generate greater popular support for violent extremists.

The same logic applies with even greater force to Netanyahu's second campaign pledge, promoting forced takeovers of houses and schools by radical settler groups in dense Palestinian neighborhoods in or near Jerusalem's Old City.

Similar property seizures during the last Likud government enraged Palestinians and fueled the intifadah, the popular uprising against Israeli rule. Coming after the hope generated by the peace process, further hostile takeovers can only signal a return to occupation and a practical demonstration that differences cannot be settled without resort to force.

Netanyahu campaigned on a platform of rejecting further territorial compromise. The basic assumption of the peace process is precisely that political control over territory is what the Palestinians need in order to conclude a lasting and secure peace with Israel. Absent this basic requirement, security will prove elusive.

In analyzing the Israeli electorate, it must be stressed that substantial numbers backed peace policies. Not only did Peres lose by the narrowest of margins, but peace supporters remain prominent in the new Knesset.

The "peace bloc" of Labor and its allies captured more than one-third of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The three Orthodox religious parties together took about 25 seats. Early comment on these mandates for Orthodox parties has often mistakenly described them as hawks on peace issues. In fact, there is great variation among and within these parties on territorial compromise; had Peres won, he may have included some, and possibly all, of them in his coalition.

We in the United States can do much to further these peace policies and help Israelis attain their overriding goal of security. Three messages need to be conveyed to the Clinton administration and Congress.

US leadership needed

*First, US assistance to the Palestinian Authority must continue. If there is one gain the Palestinians have realized through the peace process, it is the acquisition of territory in which to express their national identity. If this experiment in self-rule were to fail, there would remain little incentive to continue the quest for peace. It is vital that the US maintain its leadership role in supplying and marshaling the assistance the PA needs to serve its people and attract international investment.

*Second, American supporters of a secure peace must work hard to ensure that no US funds go, directly or indirectly, to support settlement building or expansion in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, or the Gaza Strip. This country must maintain its traditional position that the settlements are an obstacle to peace.

*Third, peace forces need to maintain advocacy for a vigorous role by the US in forging an Israeli peace with Syria and Lebanon. We can't assume that the presence of a new Likud government destroys prospects for peace on Israel's northern border. Completing the circle of peace with Israel's neighbors is a basic Israeli interest that needs to be pursued under any leadership.

It will not be easy to further these policies in opposition to the new governing coalition. But we need to be steadfast in pursuing the only policies that can realize the security goals all Israelis seek.

* Gary E. Rubin is executive director of Americans for Peace Now in Washington.

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