Israel’s de Gaulle

In the end, Yitzhak Shamir could not please both the Americans and the Israeli far right. Without the support of the Moledet, Techiya and Tsomet parties, Shamir was, this week, left two seats short of a majority in the Knesset, making an election virtually inevitable. Even bribery had failed: his offer of more money for settlements in the occupied territories could not avert the desertion. As far as the zealots were concerned, by talking to the enemy, Shamir had committed a heresy, and there could be no recovery.

But on the issue that caused the far right walkout, there was no fundamental difference between Shamir and those who rejected him. Throughout the peace talks, Shamir has continued to reject the very idea of territorial compromise, or of exchanging land for peace. Whatever the far right say, the Likud version of Palestinian autonomy would not have challenged Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank.

Ironically, the far right’s main contribution to Shamir’s coalition was to make him look good. Compared to them, Shamir was the epitome of openness, good sense, and patriotic responsibility. He may not have had anything to put on the table, but, by heaven, he was going to sit down at it anyway.

Opinion polls show Likud well ahead of Labour, as Shamir projects himself as an Israeli de Gaulle—the only man who can deliver peace with the Arabs on acceptable terms. A campaign strong on nationalist rhetoric may capture the middle ground of public opinion from Labour’s sophisticated but mistrusted leader, Shimon Peres.

One of the few cards left to Labour is the deteriorating state of the economy. Unemployment is running at its highest level since the slump of the mid-1960s, and real wages fell by 5 per cent last year. The cost of absorbing new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, combined with President Bush’s unwillingness to authorise $10 billion in loan guarantees to subsidise Likud’s settlement policies, is driving Israel into economic and social paralysis. The shrinking shekel in the Israeli voters’ pockets may force them to give the doves a chance. The alternative is for the Jewish state to sink even deeper into Shamir’s political and economic quicksand.

New Statesman editorial 24 January 1992

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