ISRAEL recently experienced something it has witnessed only once before: The ruling party was ousted from office. It happened first in 1977 when Likud won over Labor, which had governed Israel since its creation. Now it has happened again, and Labor is back in power.
Rare occurrences tend to be given great significance simply because they are rare. It is not surprising that Labor's recent victory is greeted with much anticipation of its possible impact on the Arab-Israeli peace process. Furthermore, the Likud-led government of Yitzhak Shamir was abrasive, dogmatic, and inflexible, which intensifies the expectation of change after its defeat. But how justified are these expectations? Any present analysis of the potential impact of the Israeli elections suffers from tw o handicaps. One, Labor has not won a majority and needs to find partners for a governing coalition. Although Yitzhak Rabin won, he still does not have a government, and any comment on the policy of the incoming government must be partly speculative.
Second, there is the problematic United States political climate. How the American political map looks after the dust of the US election campaign settles will also shape the future of the peace process and the behavior of the parties involved.
All of this does not mean that the future of the peace process is beyond knowing; it only means that such knowledge must be hedged by uncertainties.
The Palestinians more than others - because their future depends on it - need to be particularly thoughtful in their assessment of change in Israel. To exaggerate the positive consequences of Labor's return to power, or to belittle them, would be equally hazardous. The first reaction would blind Palestinians to traps, and the other would blind them to opportunities. The main challenge Palestinians face is to identify the traps and the opportunities, and to devise a negotiating strategy to minimize the da ngers of the former and maximize the promise of the latter.
Palestinian opinion is torn between two sets of facts about Mr. Rabin, his party, and the new government soon to emerge in Israel. The Palestinians' experience with Labor, which is lengthy and extensive, tells them that Labor Zionism leads a double life, and they cannot be certain which of its two faces will be gazing at them from across the table when the talks resume.
Their experience tells them that Labor is Likud with a lot of makeup on its face. Their memory tells them that everything that Zionism did to them was done by Labor governments before Likud ever came to power.
The Palestinians also remember that it was Rabin - as Mr. Shamir's defense minister - who ordered his soldiers to break Palestinian bones to crush the intifadah. And they remind those who have forgotten that the sterile Shamir plan for limited Palestinian autonomy, which the Israeli negotiators brought to the table to "Bantustan-ize" the Palestinian future, was originally authored by Rabin. In Israel it is known as the Rabin-Shamir plan.
On the other hand, the Palestinians hear from Labor a more promising message. They hear that, unlike Likud, Labor accepts "territorial compromise," is agreeable to expanded Palestinian representation in the peace talks, and is committed to reaching a speedy agreement on a broad transfer of authority. The Palestinians understand that Labor is more pragmatic, when Likud was more dogmatic, and therefore is more amenable to persuasion.
The Palestinians also know that Shamir lost the elections because he alienated voters with dogmatic priorities that caused a rift with Washington and the loss of much needed financial support. Rabin, heeding the lesson, is already speaking of modifying Israel's priorities by spending more on the ailing economy and less on settlements.
The biggest mistake that the Palestinians - or other parties, for that matter - can make as they reshape their peace strategy in anticipation of the new Israeli team is to base that strategy solely on one or the other images of Labor. Labor is both: It represents Israel's Zionist instincts, which make it like Likud, and Israel's interests, which make it different.
In practical terms, this means that the Palestinians should be prepared for more challenging offers, some meaningful and some merely cosmetic. They can reasonably expect greater discretion in the makeup of their negotiating team, and they can expect a more liberal interpretation of "autonomy" or "self-rule."
They should prepare for a faster-paced process, and one that is more focused on substance. Above all, the Palestinians need to be prepared to face an Israeli team that looks and sounds more agreeable than it really is, with all the benefits and pitfalls that this entails.
They need a strategy to find the real and expose the facade. And they need to prepare for the danger of an Israeli strategy to use the peace process for mending fences with Washington rather than making peace with the Arabs.
Unlike their experience of negotiating with Likud, the Palestinians are likely to need ideas more than statements, and proposals more than rebuttals. They will need to approach the talks with receptivity minus gullibility, alertness minus cynicism.