Whither Rabin's Peace Dividend?

Gains from rapprochement with Arab neighbors may not meet voters' expectations

WITH a healthy domestic economy and dramatic peace deals with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Jordan to show for his first two years in office, Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appears to be in an unassailable political position.

But appearances could be deceiving, some Israeli political analysts caution. The dividends of peace have not matched the inflated expectations of many Israeli voters. If disappointment turns to disillusionment before election day, in November 1996, Mr. Rabin's eventful reign - and the ascendancy of the Labor Party he heads - could be in jeopardy.

``It all depends on the way the peace process proceeds,'' says Nahum Barnea, a political columnist for the Israeli daily Yedioth Aharanoth. ``Without the appearance of success, Labor stands a very slim chance of running the next government.''

Labor and Likud

Two recent public opinion polls show roughly even support for Labor and its chief rival, the right-wing Likud Party. Labor sources say that is good news, since the party in power in Israel is usually behind in the polls at the midway point between national elections.

But other analysts say the polls indicate an erosion of support for Labor that reflects, among other things, growing concern in Israel over the implications of the Labor Party's peace moves.

The peace agreement struck a year ago between Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat has produced mixed results, and many Israelis remain ambivalent about granting West Bank Palestinians full autonomy. Politically charged decisions about when and how to redeploy Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and when to schedule Palestinian elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will have to be made by Rabin before the next elections.

Meanwhile, the cost of a peace with Syria that Rabin is now intent on achieving - the return of the Golan Heights - is much clearer to most Israelis than the benefits.

Despite such reservations, Rabin's peace agreements with Mr. Arafat and with Jordan's King Hussein remain, on balance, a political asset.

Rabin has also gained popularity among mainstream Israelis for diverting billions of dollars from the construction of new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories to badly needed roads and other infrastructure in Israel proper.

Labor's prospects are also buttressed by the lackluster performance of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, whose facile television presence may not be enough of an asset to offset Rabin's long years of political and military experience when voters go to the polls.

Mr. Netanyahu last Friday called for an immediate referendum on Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights. He says Israel's starting point in talks with Syria should be keeping the entire Golan.

But he is being pulled so far to the right by hard-line elements in his own party that he could lose his credibility with mainstream Israeli voters. ``He may win over the internal opposition in the Likud, but he will lose public support because people in the center will not be willing to vote for extreme populistic and nationalistic policies,'' says Arye Naor, a political science lecturer at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Political analysts say Labor's prospects at the polls may hinge on how Israelis weigh the costs and benefits of peace with the PLO two years from now and, more crucially, on the outcome of Rabin's peace moves with Syria.

Over the past few months, Rabin has sent diplomatic signals to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad that Israel is serious about ending the state of war that has existed between the two countries since Israel was created in 1948.

But even moderate Israelis are deeply reluctant to give up the Golan, which they prize for its strategic value and its extraordinary natural beauty. They are also reluctant to see the 13,000 Jewish settlers now living on the Golan uprooted. ``Israelis like the idea of peace with Syria but they don't like the price they're going to have to pay for it,'' Mr. Barnea says.

Worse for Rabin is that the head of the lobby in the Israeli parliament to save the Golan is a Laborite, Avigdor Kahalani, who is pressing for legislation that would require a 70-member Knesset (parliament) majority to change the status of the Golan and 65 percent approval in a national referendum.

``When portions of the Labor Party unite forces with the right wing to stop Rabin, they weaken his power to lead.'' says Barnea on the implications of the split within Labor over the Golan.

Nudged by necessity, Rabin has endorsed the idea of a referendum.

At the same time, Labor is preparing an aggressive public-relations campaign to demonstrate that peace with Syria provides more security than possession of the Golan.

``For 30 years, we have seen the Golan as a strategic necessity. Now we have to show the public that circumstances have changed,'' says Nissim Zvili, the secretary-general of the Labor Party. ``When we present a full program for peace, which will include provisions for our security, then the public will vote for peace, even though the price may be high and the concessions painful.''

Even as the pressure mounts, Labor leaders take comfort from history. On the eve of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977, Israelis were overwhelmingly opposed to exchanging the Sinai Peninsula (which Israel seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war) for peace with Egypt. After Sadat's arrival, public opinion turned around completely.

Preconditions on Golan

Rabin's preconditions for giving up the Golan seem certain to include Syrian recognition of Israel, and Syria's agreement to purge south Lebanon of pro-Iranian Hizbullah forces, which have posed a constant threat to northern Israel and to Israeli soldiers operating in Israel's self-proclaimed ``security zone'' in south Lebanon. If Mr. Assad goes along, Rabin will be able to make the case to Israeli voters that in four years he has defused the three greatest threat's to Israel's security.

``Once negotiations actually begin, and people sense that there will be no more fighting in south Lebanon, that the boys will be returning home, and that we will have diplomatic relations with Syria and Lebanon, then the whole public climate will change,'' Mr. Naor says.

``Anyone who wants to analyze the issue cannot forget the precedent of the [former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin government, when in return for peace Israel gave back the whole of the Sinai and evacuated the settlers,'' adds Naor.

``We will be able to convince the public that peace is worth the sacrifice,'' Mr. Zvili says.

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