Elections redraw Israeli politics

A powerful centrist party may emerge. Palestinians debate how to proceed with peace process on hold.

Where will Israelis and Palestinians be on May 4, 1999?

Israelis don't know who will be leading their state, and Palestinians don't know if they'll have one at all.

What is clear is that the five-year "interim phase" stipulated by the Oslo peace accords officially stops ticking on that date. In anticipation of its arrival, Israelis and Palestinians face wrenching internal debates over how to proceed in what could be the most momentous period - or possibly the most explosive - in the peace process thus far.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has said he will declare an independent state on May 4. At that time, Israelis may have a new prime minister - or may be in the thick of an election campaign.

The path to new elections, which heated up this week, has put both peoples' political circuits into disarray.

Party challengers

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's former finance minister, Dan Meridor, resigned from the Likud Party Tuesday and said he will run for prime minister as the leader of a new centrist party. The late Menachem Begin's son, Benny Begin, may either challenge Mr. Netanyahu for the leadership of Likud or form a far-right party. Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, both popular in Likud, are also considering challenges to Netanyahu. The maneuverings have been read by many as signals that the once-mighty Likud is splintering to pieces.

In perhaps an equally potent blow to the status of the Labor Party, Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak - a former army chief of staff and known peace advocate - is forfeiting his natural home on a Labor ticket, albeit as No. 2, to party chairman Ehud Barak. Mr. Lipkin-Shahak is expected to announce that he, too, will run as the leader of the new centrist party - which could eventually cause Mr. Meridor to cede his candidacy to the popular ex-chief of staff.

The fact that Israelis seem so anxious to join a middle-of-the-road political party may signify the melding of the Labor and Likud movements. The 1993 land-for-peace deal highlighted the sharp divisions between the two. But especially in the wake of Netanyahu's reluctant acceptance of those accords in 1996, Likud moderates have grown to support trading land for peace with the Palestinians.

Another issue that shows blurred lines between Likud and Labor is the presence of Israeli troops in southern Lebanon. Members of both parties have called for a quick solution to the situation, possibly with a controversial, unilateral withdrawal. The matter may be pushed onto the elections agenda following a botched Israeli attack on Tuesday and Wednesday's retaliation by Hizbullah guerrillas.

"We are at the threshold of tremendous change in Israeli politics, because ideological differences between Likud and Labor have almost disappeared," says Michael Bar-Zohar, a former Labor Knesset member and political adviser to Labor leaders such as Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. "We are going to have a strong rapprochement between moderate Likud and moderate Labor voters, and that will generate a central party that's going to become the major political force in Israel in future years."

Palestinian viewpoints

The good news for Palestinians, it might be said, is that Israeli elections could mean the return of a government truly enthusiastic about making peace. The bad news is that there will probably be no Israeli moves to implement the peace accords in the next few months, a potentially painful hiatus at a time when Palestinians were expecting to see the release of more prisoners and the handover of more West Bank land.

Outside the Palestinian Legislative Council's meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Tuesday, representatives of Mr. Arafat's own Fatah Party were remarkably split over whether he should and would declare a state.

"It's very difficult for Arafat to back down from this expectation of statehood now," says Marwan Barghouti, the secretary-general of Fatah in the West Bank. "It would be very damaging for his credibility."

Mr. Barghouti, who organizes demonstrations as head of Fatah's Supreme Council, says that such protests will continue - especially if Netanyahu tries to expand Jewish settlements or pave new bypass roads during his campaign for reelection. Recent rallies for the release of Palestinian prisoners, which Barghouti says were called by his office, have turned into violent clashes between stone throwers and Israeli soldiers.

Other Palestinians worry that any show of violence while Israel heads toward elections will help reelect Netanyahu. Unrest could provide fodder for his campaign and attract "floating" voters who, in the 1996 election, chose Likud in reaction to a string of devastating suicide bombs.

"I am afraid Hamas will again appear on the scene," says Hussan Khader, a council member from Nablus, referring to the Islamic militant group. "This is very dangerous because, if there are bombings, it will help those to the right of Netanyahu."

Mr. Khader argues that Palestinians already expect the May 4 deadline for statehood to be extended because so many issues have yet to be negotiated - and because the price of such a declaration could be military confrontation with Israel. "I didn't take the May 4 date seriously to begin with," Khader adds, "but he [Arafat] will continue to use this to pressure the Israelis."

Moussa Zaabout, a council member affiliated with Hamas, says the group had no need for bombings now. "Hamas is not concerned with this because they want to show that, even if there are no bombs, nothing is achieved on the ground. We know Israeli elections are just a way of postponing the peace process."

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