Israelis like to joke that the most popular politician in Israel - one who easily could be elected prime minister in the May 29 elections - is neither Prime Minister Shimon Peres nor Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. It is President Bill Clinton.
From the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin last November to the deadly terrorist bombings earlier this year, Mr. Clinton has acted as if his personal mission is to see Israel through its troubled times on the road to peace.
But Clinton's emotional outreach has a political objective. The Arab-Israeli peace process has been a top priority for him and for Secretary of State Warren Christopher. They will go to great lengths to keep it moving forward.
The United States is closely watching the upcoming elections. If Mr. Peres and his Labor Party are victorious, continued negotiating progress is expected. Final status talks with the Palestinians can commence in earnest. An Israeli-Syrian breakthrough may take years, but Peres, at least, is willing to put much on the table toward that end.
From Washington's perspective, the possibility that Mr. Netanyahu could win and throw the entire peace process into question is ominous. In this view, the uncompromising positions of a right-wing Israeli government would preclude future agreements. A new Middle East based on cooperation and compromise would remain a distant dream.
But the Clinton administration's concerns are skewed by the fact that Clinton himself can remain in office for only another 4-1/2 years, at most, and would prefer to see the dream of Mideast peace near completion during that time. This US short-term view doesn't take into account the reality that a Likud-led government would be seriously constrained by a number of factors.
Recognizing Palestinian autonomy
First, Likud has already been compelled by political agreements and changes on the ground to accept much of the process that has brought greater Palestinian autonomy. Yasser Arafat's leadership and an 88-member Palestinian council have been sanctioned by relatively free and fair elections. Palestinians, including a large Palestinian police force, control much of Gaza and most West Bank urban areas, even if Israel still assumes overall authority. Netanyahu has acknowledged that he will not retake areas, roll back already-implemented clauses, or bar the Israeli government from negotiating with Mr. Arafat.
Second, and more important, there would be a heavy backlash against Likud efforts to obstruct or freeze the peace process. The United States, the European Union, and other major powers would create a diplomatic storm; the US-Israeli relationship could rapidly move from tremendous warmth to a cool and troubled period.
Political machinations would be matched by economic protests. American, European, and Asian companies and investors welcome the stability associated with a continuing peace process.
In the Arab world, Israel's nascent ties to North African and Gulf states could evaporate - not to mention the problems that could be created in Israel's relationship with Egypt and Jordan. Among Palestinians, a renewed intifadah (uprising) is not unthinkable.
Weighing the risks
For a Likud-led government intent on stopping the process, all this would add up to serious trouble with the Israeli electorate. Where do Israelis stand on the balance between the risks of continued occupation and conflict, on the one hand, and the risks of peacemaking and conflict resolution, on the other?
From 1967 to 1991, the latter risks seemed too great, but the cumulative effect of endless confrontation - including key events like the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the intifadah - convinced Israelis that the price of occupation and conflict was too high.
Since 1991, the tables have turned and conflict resolution and compromise have been priorities. But terrorism against Israelis has sapped the strength of those who support compromise, perhaps to the point where many Israelis have forgotten that the alternative is also problematic. A backlash against an effort by a Likud government to freeze the peace process would serve as a sharp reminder that conflict resolution is the preferred route, in spite of the human toll from terrorism.
Admittedly, other factors could change over time. Likud could realize its dilemma and co-opt much of the Labor approach, much as former Prime Minister Menachem Begin made peace with Egypt and returned the Sinai. In the short term, the election this month could have an ambiguous result that forces some sort of Labor-Likud cooperation, or another election in a few months.
But assuming none of these other scenarios come to pass, the impact on Israel of a regional and international backlash against a Likud-led peace-process freeze severely limits that party's policy options if it wants to remain in power.
Supporters of the peace process in the United States have legitimate cause to worry about the outcome of the May 29 Israeli elections. Yet over the next 10 to 15 years, the peace process has the strength to prevail, making even a Likud victory in 1996 an ephemeral achievement.