Tel Aviv

So here we are. It’s déjà vu all over again. Or is it?

Last time around, in 1991 following the Gulf War, Bush 41 and his forceful partner, Secretary of State James Baker, pushed and cajoled all the relevant parties, including a very reluctant Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, to attend the Madrid peace conference. That led to the 1993 Oslo accords, a process that was suspended after the breakdown of the Camp David summit in 2000 and the outbreak of the second intifada.

Now, following the latest Gulf War, the formation of a new Palestinian government and the official US presentation of the road map “to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” it appears as if a new window of opportunity for possible progress toward peace has opened.

But is there an Israeli partner in this process?

The government formed by Ariel Sharon after the elections this past February is probably the most right-wing in Israeli history. The socioeconomic policy of almost all the ministers, led by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is pure Thatcherism. Netanyahu’s recipe for jump-starting an economy mired in prolonged recession is a combination of tax breaks for the rich and privatization coupled with massive layoffs in the public sector and drastic budget cuts that will seriously damage Israel’s social safety net. The only coalition party with a slight social consciousness is the National Religious Party (NRP), but that is counterbalanced by the party’s dedication to funding settlements in the occupied territories.

When it comes to peace and security, Sharon, at least in terms of his public pronouncements, is to the left of the overwhelming majority of his ministers. While he has declared his support for a Palestinian state and a willingness to make “painful concessions,” his own Likud Party passed an internal resolution opposing a Palestinian state. Most of the Likud ministers oppose a two-state solution, and they are backed by the four extreme right-wing National Union and NRP ministers.

The joker in the coalition is the centrist neoliberal/anticlerical/defend-the-downtrodden-middle-class party, Shinui. The surprise of the last elections, Shinui won fifteen seats in the Knesset and five ministers (out of twenty), and succeeded in driving the ultra-Orthodox out of the government. When the TV anchors want to consult “the left” in the government, the smiling face of party leader and Justice Minister Tommy Lapid appears on the screen. Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and journeyman journalist, was a supporter of annexation and Greater Israel for more than twenty years, but his views changed after the first intifada began in 1987. Lapid supported the Oslo process and an agreement with the Palestinians based on land for peace. While one of the other Shinui ministers came out of the right-wing Tsomet Party, three are graduates of the left-wing Meretz Party, who look at the road map as an opportunity to move toward peace.

The key question is, Exactly what does Sharon want? If he decides that he wants to go toward peace, he will easily be able to get a majority to back him, composed of a minority of the Likud and most of Shinui, backed by Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties, who have promised him a political safety net if he does the right (left) thing.

My guess is that Sharon will not have the psychological or political strength to break the pattern of his entire public career. However, if the Bush Administration were to seriously promote the road map, with its plan for a viable Palestinian state by 2005, Sharon would respond favorably.

This is where the big series of “ifs” comes in. If the Arab world, Tony Blair and the Quartet partners who co-formulated the road map (the United Nations, the European Union and Russia) help Colin Powell and his State Department team win the day in favor of an active US engagement in the process, and if the new Palestinian government succeeds in reducing terrorism, an Israeli partner will grudgingly emerge. And if the Israeli public makes the connection between the deteriorating economic situation and the lack of peace, the Israeli political map could be rearranged. Unfortunately, Israelis tend to be a prime example of the theory formulated by Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-born Nobel economics prizewinner: that people tend to base their economic (and political) decisions more on emotions than on rational thinking.

Sharon was elected because a majority of the Israeli public despaired of having a Palestinian partner for peace, despite the fact that polls consistently demonstrate that a majority support a two-state solution and evacuation of most of the territories and settlements. The new Palestinian government creates an opportunity to overcome this barrier, and the initial pronouncements of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, a k a Abu Mazen, against the suicide bombers are a positive step in that direction. Unfortunately, the night that his government was confirmed, a suicide bomber struck at the entrance of a Tel Aviv club (a few blocks from my house), killing a waitress and two musicians and wounding more than fifty others. This may have been a response to the Israeli assassination of two Palestinians the day before.

Meanwhile, Sharon and Abu Mazen have met, but the deadly terror continues, Sharon refuses to announce a settlement freeze and rejectionists on both sides try to undermine the fledgling political initiative. The Americans are the key to breaking this cycle of violence. Will Bush 43, who has moved from isolationism to a pre-emptive, Pax Americana approach to world affairs, take the additional step of becoming a committed conflict-resolution facilitator in the Middle East, a step that is also presumably in America’s interest? Highly unlikely. However, if he does, and if he is successful, he will gain the gratitude of the majority of Israelis and Palestinians. A recent poll published by Tel Aviv University’s Steinmetz Center for Peace Research indicates that 65 percent of Jewish Israelis support the road map. Even among Likud supporters, a clear majority of 58 percent support it. And if Sharon’s worried about the response of the American Jewish community as the 2004 elections draw near, he should rest assured that the large majority are more peace oriented than their self-appointed leaders in AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who have expressed reservations about the road map. According to a poll initiated by Americans for Peace Now and the Arab American Institute, 7l.8 percent believe that the best way to fight terrorism is a combination of force and negotiations, and 67.5 percent support the evacuation of settlements in the context of a peace treaty.

Powell has come and gone, and if Bush doesn’t give his Secretary of State the same type of backing that his father gave to James Baker, then Israelis and Palestinians will probably have to wait for the entire troika–Sharon, Arafat and Bush–to leave the political stage before negotiations are resumed, with many more lives lost on both sides.