Balancing Act

In a country that specialises in resurrection, the second coming of Yitzhak Rabin, as leader of the Israeli Labour Party after a 15 year intermission was not unexpected. Despite his considerable political talents, Rabin’s bitter rival Shimon Peres was deemed unelectable — he failed in four elections to arrest the drift to the right and restore a Labour government.

A new electoral system whereby ordinary members were given the opportunity to choose the candidate who would lead Labour into 1992 campaign worked in Rabin’s favour. It also reflected recent opinion polls that Rabin was the only person capable of defeating Yitzhak Shamir.

The Madrid Peace Conference last November aroused expectations in Israel that an agreement on autonomy for the Palestinians was now a distinct possibility. The name of the game for both Shamir and Rabin is thus to capture the middle ground, to be the candidate of consensus, to be strong on national security but grudgingly pragmatic on securing a final agreement with the Palestinians. Rabin may better fit such a public perception and provide Labour with its best possibility of forming an administration since its disastrous defeat at the hands of Menachem Begin in 1977. As minister of

Defence in the National Unity government of 1988-1990. Rabin was responsible for containing the Intifada while resisting the demands of the far Right to ruthlessly to crush the Palestinian uprising by brute force. His military persona as the upholder of national security is an asset in a country where defence is a sacred cow. Another advantage over Shamir is that Rabin does not manifest any ideological infatuation with the territories conquered in 1967. Rabin has long favoured the Jordanian option. In his autobiography in 1979, he writes that “a Jordanian-Palestinian state would include considerable proportions of Gaza Strip [mainly the areas] . . . and allow for the expression of the unique identity of the Palestinians in whichever form they choose to right to self-determination.”

He has said that he would implement autonomy for the Palestinians within six to nine months of taking office. Unlike Peres, he has never flirted with the idea of negotiating with the PLO or an independent Palestinian state.  Regarded as unapproachable and hardline in the past, his own outlook may now be close to that of the Palestinian negotiators who met the Israelis in Washington on Monday.

Following the Gulf war, there was clearly a movement of power, away from the PLO outside to their representatives in the conquered territories. Faisal Husseini and Hanan Ashrawi essentially accepted the idea of autonomy—an idea previously anathema to Arafat and treasonous to rejectionists as Habash. Yet autonomy offers something to both sides. To Israel, continued security control through a military presence. To the Palestinians, hope for the future realisation of national aspirations.

But what does autonomy mean in reality? For Shamir and the Likud, it is a formalisation of those areas of authority that the Palestinians have already—health, education, municipalities. Likud offers a personal autonomy—not a territorial autonomy—while proclaiming Israeli sovereignity. The Palestinians, instead, talk about limited self-rule—a transitional stage to a state. The meeting of these two approaches are what the current negotiations are about. It is about the sort of institutions that Israel will allow the Palestinians to establish, and Rabin may be the man to strike a balance acceptable to most Israelis.

Even the right-wing war of delegitimisation of Palestinian nationalism has receded. Rabin will have not missed the irony of Shamir calmly listening to the delivery of the leader of the Palestinian delegation at Madrid, Dr Haidar Abed-Shafi, who was one of the original founders of the PLO in 1964.

Institutions, however, are the bedrock of all states. In every national struggle since the second world war, when self-governing institutions were established they ultimately led to independence. This is why Arik Sharon, the far right and the settlers all opposed Shamir so strongly, and why they are now so deeply troubled by Rabin’s election as Labour Party leader.

The peace camp in Israel is ambivalent about Rabin’s new status. They will remember his policy of “force, might and beatings” against the Shabab youth of the Intifada, his blunt hawkishness and brusque manner and continued opposition to their efforts towards peace and reconciliation—a belief that he is simply a Likudnik in Labour clothing. Indeed, it was under Rabin’s premiership from1974 until 1977 that the Labour governmentpusillanimously retreated before the advance of Gush Emunim, the religious pioneers’ movement and laid the ground forsettlements in the very heartland of Arab-populated areas. For many, Rabin’s return is a total eclipse of the conscience. Such resentment may lead to a defection of some Labour Party doves to the recently established peace list of three small parties on the left, especially as Rabin’s victory over the more liberal Peres was much narrower than anticipated. Alternatively, many doves may now conclude that the peace camp can advance no further and, despite their disdain, Rabin offers the only way forward to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israelis may also believe that Rabin would be far better placed to deal with the Americans, who have refused to grant the $10 billion in loan guarantees for absorbing the new Soviet immigrants unless there is a cessation of settlement activity. This is an assurance that Shamir has categorically refused to give. Since 1989, nearly 400,000 Soviet Jews have settled in Israel. The prediction is that one million will have arrived by 1995. Michael Bruno, the former governor of the Bank of Israel, has estimated that it will cost in total upwards of $30 billion. Yitzhak Moda’i, the Israeli finance minister has repeated that, unless Israel receives the loan guarantees, the Jewish state will be plunged in social and economic chaos. Unemployment is at its highest since the great slump of the mid-sixties.

Modai’i recently ordered a former director-general of the finance ministry to compile a report on the economic prospects if the loans were not forthcoming. The 150-page report predicted an unprecedented rate of unemployment of 16.9 per cent by 1995; 360,000 people unemployed; an annual drop in the standard of living of 0.5 per cent, tax rises to intolerable levels and an exodus of highly qualified Soviet immigrants and the brightest and best young Israelis.

Following the New Hampshire primary, President Bush’s reticence was reinforced by the “America First!” isolationist campaign of Pat Buchanan who has prominently opposed the loan guarantees to Israel. Bush has also dropped some broad hints that he would be far happier working with a flexible Labour than with the immovable Likud. Last week, the White House warmed to Rabin’s musings aloud on the killing of Sheik Musawi and the military drive against Hizbollah. Would Musawi’s demise bring peace nearer? Were the inhabitants of northern Israel now in a better situation than before?

Such comments coming from Peres would have been glossed over, but Rabin’s background lent them credence. Likud now realises that it has a tough nut to crack in dealing with Rabin. The vagaries of the unpredictable nature of Israeli politics leave the outcome on 23 June, election day, still hanging in the air, but the chances of an outright Labour victory or Labour-led coalitions with Likud, or even with the peace list, have dramatically improved with the return of Yitzhak Rabin

New Statesman 28 February 1992

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