Israeli Elections: Some What-Ifs and the Future

As this is written, we still await the Israeli election returns. All indications are that today's vote will be very close. While pollsters give Prime Minister Shimon Peres a 3-point lead over his Likud opponent, Binyamin Netanyahu, they acknowledge their margin of error to be 3 points. This gives Mr. Peres the statistical chance of a dead heat race or a modest lead. The former is closer to reality.

As voters go to the polls, there are three possible outcomes. It's worth examining them, despite the impending real result, in order to understand more of what Israel and its neighbors face in the months ahead:

1. Peres will win the post of prime minister, and Labor will maintain its razor-thin coalition majority in the Knesset or possibly pick up a few extra seats.

2. Peres will win the prime ministership but the Labor coalition will lose seats, leaving him unable to put together a governing coalition.

3. Mr. Netanyahu will win the prime ministership and be able to form a Likud government.

Americans will be surprised if Peres, Nobel Prize winner and architect of much of the progress with Palestinians and Arab countries, loses. The US administration hopes for a Peres victory. Its surprise at a Netanyahu victory would match that felt in Washington when Clement Attlee defeated Winston Churchill in 1945. Today in Israel the only certainty is that the large number of "undecideds" will decide the outcome.

There are two elements in the Israeli electorate that, if either were to vote as a bloc, would determine the result: the "Russians" and the Israeli Arabs. The "Russians," whom Natan Sharansky has been trying to organize behind his "Israel on the Ascent" party, cannot be counted on to favor Labor as they did in 1992. Their community feels underprivileged in Israeli society and reportedly has moved toward Likud as their party of choice. They share the general Israeli concern about security. The suicide bombings of recent months remind them of the dangers they suffered in the days of the former Soviet Union.

Some Israeli Arabs have supported Likud in the past, but many, frustrated by their sense of being treated as second-class citizens of Israel and neglected in terms of not getting a fair share of the national budget, have boycotted the elections. Labor has paid more attention to their social and economic demands, and Peres has talked of appointing the first Israeli Arab Cabinet minister. But this year the Israel Arabs are unhappy over Israel's recent military campaign, "Grapes of Wrath," which took a heavy toll of civilian Lebanese lives and displaced 400,000 Lebanese from southern Lebanon. For these reasons a high proportion may abstain from the vote. They could win 14 seats in the 120-member Knesset if they all voted and did so as a bloc.

A Peres defeat would have major implications for the peace process as it has developed since 1993. First, there would be a freeze in the progress of Israeli-Palestinian talks. Likud has opposed granting the Palestinian Authority anything more than possibly expanded autonomy. Likud has also called for expansion of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. On these counts alone, a Likud victory would discredit the present Palestinian leadership and its interest in continued negotiations, and possibly prompt a return to violence.

Second, there would be a prolonged pause in the Israeli-Syrian talks. Likud has explicitly opposed returning the Golan Heights to Syria, the sine qua non for a Syrian agreement to a peace treaty. By now all Israelis know that is Syria's price. Those who are not willing to pay that price argue that no matter what security arrangements Syria accepts, it cannot be trusted with control of the Heights. Admittedly, experience in office might change Likud's policy on Golan, but this would take considerable time. Its platform condemns Labor for even considering a change in the status of the Heights.

If there is to be no peace with Syria, the broader implications are:

1. Israel must expect continued Syrian backing of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syro-Iranian cooperation to that end. This could lead to a direct conflict with Syria, something no Israeli government has contemplated since the 1973 war. "Operation Grapes of Wrath" showed that punishing Lebanon doesn't create significant pressure on Syria to rein in Hizbullah and that Damascus is well able to bear Lebanese pain.

2. Lack of an agreement with Syria will at least prolong the process of getting to broader agreements with other Arab-world countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, is unlikely to challenge Syrian opposition to further normalization with any Arab country until it gets its treaty. For its part, the American administration may feel impelled to distance itself from Syria if there is no progress in negotiations with Israel. This would add to the prospect of growing, potentially explosive tensions between Damascus and Jerusalem.

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