Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to adapt an old strategy to a changed situation. Whether the policy works will depend ultimately on the reaction of Israel's Arab neighbors.
Since the Jewish state's establishment in 1948, its leaders have sought to negotiate peace with Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon while minimizing any response to Palestinian nationalism. The 1948 armistice agreements were with contiguous states; Palestinians had no role. United Nations Security Council resolution 242 of 1967 called for Israel to "establish and maintain contact with the States concerned;" Palestinians were included only in reference to the "refugee problem."
The 1978 Camp David accords recognized the rights of the Palestinians and called for the establishment of a self-governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians, however, were represented by Egypt, not by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
In his major initiative on the Arab-Israeli issue on Sept. 1, 1982, President Reagan called for self-government for the Palestinians "in association with Jordan." Palestinian representation at the Madrid conference in 1991 was accepted only as part of a Jordanian delegation.
Opposition to any exercise of sovereignty as demanded by the PLO has been a constant in Israeli politics, especially in the Likud party.
Against this background, Mr. Netanyahu has pursued the peace process by emphasizing his contacts with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan. The prime minister had hoped to negotiate with Syria as well, proposing to trade the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon for a border security guarantee, but Damascus rejected this offer.
Any major breakthrough with Syria is diminished by Netanyahu's public declaration that he will not give back the Golan Heights. But secret contacts between the Israeli government and Damascus may continue.
As for the Palestinians, the situation has changed since Likud relinquished power in 1992. The Palestine National Authority has been recognized as a negotiating partner, Israeli forces have been withdrawn, and Palestinian self-government has been established under Yasser Arafat in all major cities in the Gaza Strip and West Bank except Hebron.
Focusing on relations with Israel's neighbors, Netanyahu hopes to blunt Palestinian political pressures by permitting more workers from the West Bank and Gaza to return to jobs in Israel. But this return is conditioned on an absence of terrorism, and the responsibility for preventing such acts has been placed on Mr. Arafat.
In other moves that demonstrate the direction of Likud thinking, Netanyahu has delayed withdrawing troops from Hebron, announced the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and refused to meet with Arafat.
This policy entails several risks. Arafat may not be able to curb terrorism; he is already in trouble because of the high-handed methods of his police. When the Israelis were in control of the West Bank and Gaza, they could not wipe out terrorism. Retreating from commitments of the previous Israeli government could revive the Palestinian uprising, the intifadah, and bolster militant forces. Arab neighbors may be less inclined to establish normal relations with an Israel that increasingly ignores Palestinian rights.
Predictions of how Arab states and the Palestinians may react to developments in Israel are always risky. Nevertheless, the possibility remains high that efforts to negotiate with states and marginalize the Palestinians may, in the changed circumstances of 1996, no longer work.
David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.