THE Israeli public has taken a giant step toward accommodation with its Arab neighbors by selecting a government dedicated to rapid progress in the peace process. Indeed, Yitzhak Rabin has indicated that peace negotiations will be his highest priority.
Mr. Rabin's selection should also help forge a new strategic understanding between Israel and the United States. Washington should try to strengthen Rabin's hand by loan guarantees and security cooperation, so that he can quickly exploit the opportunities available in peace talks.
Israelis last Tuesday shifted dramatically away from the Likud Party. Although the left-right divide in Israel remained close, a majority of Israelis were ready to accept Rabin's approach to peace with the Arab states and Palestinians rather than the Likud's maximalist stance in the West Bank and Gaza.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Rabin reiterated the themes he articulated during the campaign. He promised to reorder Israel's priorities, giving primary attention to negotiating peace and halting construction of "political" settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Rabin has pledged to try to reach agreement on interim self-government with the Palestinians within nine months, and he will undoubtedly push to resume bilateral negotiations this summer.
The exact shape of Israel's next government remains unknown, subject to the results of potentially lengthy coalition negotiations that begin this week. While Rabin will be prime minister, he faces a wide array of choices with respect to the makeup of his Cabinet. He could form a coalition with leftist and religious parties that would strongly support his peace initiatives, or he could try for a broader centrist coalition incorporating parties of the right in an effort to achieve internal consensus before
putting Israel's peace-negotiating positions forward.
In either case, Rabin will also strive to repair Israel's strained relations with the Bush administration. Rabin may arrive in Washington within weeks after the establishment of his new government. He will seek to open a new strategic dialogue in an effort to reach an American-Israeli agreement that can guide both countries through the shoals of Mideast peace talks.
Even the narrow issue of an interim agreement on Palestinian self-rule raises a host of difficult questions (for example, territorial extent of the regime, disposition of land and water, status of East Jerusalem Palestinians). On such issues, American and Israeli coordination would be highly desirable.
During the campaign this spring, Rabin also articulated a hard line on Israel's security concerns in the West Bank and Gaza. He will try to persuade the US and ultimately the Arabs to accept his near-term approach as an avenue to reach negotiations on territorial compromise in the long term.
Rabin's past diplomatic experience as ambassador to the US and as prime minister in the mid-'70s uniquely qualifies him to pursue a strategic understanding with the US.
DESPITE appropriate public caution, the Bush administration has not hidden its elation with the results of the Israeli election. It has stated publicly that Washington also wants to move rapidly both on the peace process and in repairing ties with Jerusalem.
In order to strengthen Rabin's hand at home and build confidence in his approach to peace, the Bush administration must take a number of steps in the near term. First, it should try to reach an accommodation with the new prime minister on loan guarantees for the resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Rabin's approach to restricting Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza goes a long way toward meeting the conditions President Bush established for the guarantees.
Second, the US will have to listen carefully to the security concerns Rabin articulates both with respect to the peace negotiations and with respect to destabilizing developments in the Middle East - such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Israeli confidence with respect to personal and national security is a prerequisite for flexibility at the negotiating table, and an element that - if ignored - can undermine the entire peace process.
Finally, the US will undoubtedly have to encourage Israel's Arab neighbors to take a realistic approach to negotiations with a Rabin-led government. Rabin is a partner for peace, but he was selected precisely because he combines elements of caution and flexibility. Washington must not let pursuit of the most desirable peace from its standpoint undermine what is actually possible in the current context.
For its part, the Arab world will have to realize that building peace - even with a Labor-led government - is a process that will take a number of years.