Israel's political deadlock shifts hope for peace back to US

Israel's inconclusive election leaves Washington, more than ever, as the key to any revived Mideast peace moves. No matter what the Americans do, most Mideast political analysts see daunting obstacles on both sides of the Israeli-Arab divide to a negotiating breakthrough.

Israelis and Arabs are meanwhile waiting and watching for the outcome of another election: the American one this November.

On the Arab side, three parties will be particularly critical to prospects for negotiating progress. These are Egypt, Jordan, and the seemingly hamstrung Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Jordan and Mr. Arafat are clearly biding their time until the United States election - and even then, it is nowhere near certain they will make a concerted negotiating bid, unless assured of major Israeli concessions.

Egypt - in statements over the weekend from its President and prime minister - also left little doubt it expects no serious movement until at least November.

Inside Israel, rarely has so mournful a mood prevailed in the ''peace camp'' that sprang up in the wake of the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit here seven years ago.

It is not so much that last week's election has dimmed chances for resolving the central issue in reviving peace moves: the future of the some 1.2 million Palestinians on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan and on the Gaza Strip.

Advocates of Israeli negotiating concessions - notably, supporters of the loosely organized Peace Now group - assume that a combination of Israel's economic troubles and post-election political deadlock will at least serve to slow Jewish settlement of the disputed territories.

Whatever governing team emerges here - a ''national unity'' cabinet, a narrow-majority coalition led by the incumbent right-wing Likud bloc, or one headed by the more left-leaning Labor Party - is seen as unlikely to enjoy the necessary support for any kind of major policy change, in whatever direction, on the West Bank and Gaza.

''But what is so depressing is that, before the elections, we had hoped - even assumed - a swing away from the right and the possibility of real progress on peace,'' remarks a Peace Now backer.

''Now all parties, right and left, are up the creek without a paddle,'' she argues. ''We're drifting with the current.... Our only hope is that the current isn't strong enough to swallow all of us.''

Adi Zemach, a Jerusalem professor and unsuccessful candidate for the small, Labor-allied Citizens' Rights party, agrees that prospects for Arab-Israeli negotiating progress do not look good. But he does not rule out change after November.

Noting that a profound economic crisis and huge debt have redoubled Israel's dependence on US support, Mr. Zemach says: ''If after the American election there is a fresh US initiative, even if (incumbent Likud leader) Yitzhak Shamir remains premier in a new government, he might see the advantage in going along.''

This argument has gained a bit more credence here amid signs that former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman - a central figure in the Sadat-era peace process - may claim a top Cabinet post as the price for his support for whatever new government eventually emerges.

Mr. Weizman's new centrist party won only three seats in Israel's 120-member Knesset. Still, neither of the country's main parties - Likud or Labor - seems able to put together a parliamentary majority without him.

But most Israeli politicians and pundits still assume that even a top portfolio for Mr. Weizman will not greatly change what seems likely to be a continued Arab-Israeli deadlock.

If Weizman joins a Likud-led coalition, says a Peace Now activist, echoing the consensus view here, ''He'll block things like a large new settlement campaign on the West Bank.

''If Labor gets in, it will have to be with the help of both Weizman and various other parties that favor West Bank settlement and the like. Such a coalition would be threatened with collapse over negotiating concessions on the West Bank.''

As for Israel's potential Arab negotiating partners, they have consistently placed hopes for any serious negotiating moves on Israeli concessions in the territories lost to Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

The pro-Labor Jerusalem Post, in a weekend commentary, posited that any national-unity government including Likud and Labor might last about a year and would be founded on a compromise approach ruling out both major new West Bank settlement and any ''initiative for talks with King Hussein or the Palestinians.''

''In truth, this is not too much of a compromise to ask for,'' the article argued. ''On the one hand, there is little reason to believe that the readiness of King Hussein or of 'moderate' Palestinians for serious talks is more than a chimera.

''Testing it can certainly wait another year.''

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