For US, little role in Israeli vote

Significant US interests are at stake in the Israeli political campaign that began earlier this month. The capacity of Washington to influence the outcome, however, may be extremely limited.

The peace process: The Clinton administration has labored hard to maintain the momentum of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but the break-up of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and the ensuing campaign has frozen that process. The anticipated beginning of final-status negotiations has been indefinitely postponed. The possibility that Mr. Netanyahu will take new, risky initiatives, including further withdrawals from Palestinian territory, seems remote. At the same time, the prime minister, to please his right-wing supporters, has authorized new Jewish settlements that can only further complicate the efforts toward peace.

Possible US actions in support of Israeli-Palestinian agreements face other obstacles beyond the unwillingness of Israeli politicians to take risks. With grudging acceptance by the Netanyahu government of the Wye accords and the principle of withdrawal, the previous divide between Labor and Likud over peace policy has been blurred. Both parties - with different emphases - endorse positions on settlements and final status of Jerusalem unacceptable to the Palestinians.

During the election campaign of 1996 between Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, the US publicly supported Mr. Peres as a promoter of peace. The result was a souring of relations with the new prime minister that added obstacles to diplomacy. The US isn't likely to choose sides this time and make the same mistake.

Israeli political stability: The Netanyahu administration, now dissolved, was the first elected under the 1992 law providing for separate votes on the prime minister and the Knesset. The result has been a strengthening of the role of small, special interest parties, and decreased stability in Israeli decision-making and politics. That is demonstrated in today's campaign by a proliferation of candidates and new parties and a weakening of traditional political alliances. Legislation that has passed its first reading in the Knesset seeks to return, with some modifications, to the old election system, but passage isn't likely before the election. The instability of the current system hampers Washington's efforts to encourage an Israeli consensus on peace, but the US can do little to affect this essentially internal problem.

Relations with Palestinians: Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat faces his own dilemmas during this period. Will he go forward with his announced intention to declare a Palestinian state on May 4 and risk a reaction that will help hard-liners in Israel? Can he effectively prevent acts of terrorism such as those that affected the last election? Can he control a Palestinian population increasingly frustrated with Israeli actions and restrictions? Here, again, the US is limited in what it can do. By his visit to Gaza in December, President Clinton raised Palestinian expectations of US support that will be hard to meet. Any official US discouragement of the declaration of a Palestinian state risks souring the current fragile Palestinian confidence in Washington. Despite security cooperation, the US is limited in its ability to prevent desperate acts of terrorism.

The American role: The official US role during this campaign period may be constricted, but the American hand is not absent. US citizens are acting as campaign advisers with both Labor and Likud. Members of the US Jewish community are undoubtedly helping candidates of both persuasions with advice and money. The break-ins at the office of Labor Party advisers in Washington highlight an American link. But such links do little to advance official US policy toward Israel and the region.

At least publicly and officially, the pursuit of US interests in Israel must await the results of the election, whether of a sole winner on May 17 or a runoff on June 2. Until then, the wisest US posture is that of a concerned bystander - however uncomfortable that may be.

* David D. Newsom, a former ambassador and undersecretary of state for political affairs, lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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