Crisis Shakes Israeli Perceptions

PLO's Pro-Iraq Stance Undercuts Moderates

IRAQ'S invasion of Kuwait has begun undermining traditional perceptions here about the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, the Middle East peace process, and Israel's strategic role in the region. The Palestinian uprising, or intifada, has virtually disappeared from the local news media and popular consciousness. Its dangers have paled in comparison with the nightmare of a possible Iraqi chemical weapons attack on Israel.

Iraq's belligerency has reinforced deep-rooted Israeli fears of Arab aggression and severely damaged efforts by moderates to promote compromise and dialogue with Palestinians. The developments have bolstered the position of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who has persistently sought to shift Middle East diplomacy away from the Palestinian issue to Israel's relations with neighboring Arab states.

The popular Palestinian backing for Iraq, and the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) support for Baghdad, have alienated Israeli public opinion and strengthened the right-wing government's argument that the PLO is unfit to participate in any peace talks.

Prominent Israeli doves who advocated talks with the PLO and met with local Palestinian leaders voiced bitter disappointment at Palestinian support for Iraq, saying that it undermined demands for self-determination and protection of human rights in the occupied territories.

``It's disappointing on the personal level to hear people you have sat and worked with for years taking such positions,'' says Amiram Goldblum, a leading activist of the Peace Now movement, who has met frequently with Palestinians.

Two leading moderates, left-wing parliament member Yossi Sarid and television personality Yaron London, served notice in newspaper columns that they would stop their attempts to meet with Palestinians because they had taken untenable positions.

Peace Now published an appeal to Palestinians, expressing dismay at the support for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and urging condemnation of Iraq's occupation of Kuwait and the use of force to resolve disputes.

In an open letter to a Palestinians published in Israel's leading newspaper, Ha'aretz, left-wing parliament member Deddi Zucker wrote: ``Suddenly you have joined Saddam Hussein and confirmed again the old stereotype held by Israelis. `The Palestinians believe only in force of arms. Nothing has changed... They still believe that conflicts, including the conflict with Israel, can be decided by force.'''

Despite the disillusionment among the Israeli left, Mr. Goldblum says it is still important to maintain dialogue with Palestinians regardless of their support for Iraq. ``Clearly there is still a need for accommodation with the Palestinians based on mutual recognition and coexistence, and we still believe there should be talks with the PLO,'' he says.

The crisis in the Gulf has also upset Israel's traditional perception of itself as a strategic asset of the United States, a vital political and military ally during any Middle East crisis.

As Washington has mounted its huge military buildup in Saudi Arabia, it has become apparent in Jerusalem that Israel's strategic role in the region has its limits.

Over the last two weeks it has emerged that in a crisis such as the one in the Gulf, the US builds on cooperation with moderate Arab states, not Israel. According to press reports, the US administration has asked Israel to keep a low profile in the Gulf crisis, a move which analysts attribute to a desire not to hurt chances for joint action with Arab states.

``A high-profile Israeli involvement in the Gulf crisis would complicate Washington's political relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and certainly with Syria,'' says Gerald Steinberg, a strategic analyst at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

``Prominent Israeli involvement might also lead to a direct Iraqi-Israeli clash, which would put the US in an awkward position vis-`a-vis its Arab allies and force it to act militarily before it is ready to do so,'' he says.

Israel's strategic importance to the US now appears diminished, continuing a process begun earlier with the ending of the cold war and the reduction of superpower rivalry in the Middle East.

Despite the changed perceptions wrought by Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, some observers in Israel believe that although the conflict with the Palestinians has been submerged, it has only been temporarily overshadowed.

Once the crisis in the Gulf is resolved, analysts argue, Washington will owe a debt to moderate Arab regimes that assisted it, such as Egypt. In order to bolster their position, the US will press Israel harder to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, a participant in the Camp David talks that preceded the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty predicted this month: ``After resolving the conflict in the Gulf, the Americans will turn their attention to the other conflict in the region, and try to settle it as well.''

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