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Nothing can obscure the fact that the good faith built up in the region so laboriously (and in spite of many ups and downs) during the Rabin and Peres governments, has been dissipated by the govermment of Binyamin Netanyahu since it took office in June 1996.
Under the former government, Israel signed the Oslo accords, handed over most of the Gaza Strip and nine Palestinian cities to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and enabled the first free elections ever to take place in Palestinian territory. It also made peace with Jordan and began to develop relations elsewhere in the Arab world, such as the Gulf States and the Maghreb countries. A new atmosphere was developing in the region.
Following Netanyahu's taking over, relations, not only with the PNA, but also with Egypt and Jordan, began to deteriorate, as the Arab world once again regarded Israel with hostility and suspicion. No wonder that in such circumstances a question mark hangs over the peace process and one sees a resurgence of violence and even the clouds of war once again threatening in the Middle East.
Israel's renewed isolation was manifested in the United Nations when, in December 1996, the General Assembly adopted 24 resolutions critical of Israel, with the support of around 150 countries and opposed only by Israel itself and usually the USA. The European Union supported nearly all these resolutions, which dealt with issues like Palestinian self-determination, settlements, Jerusalem and the refugee problem. The picture was repeated in February 1997 over the Israeli decision to build a Jewish quarter at Har Homa Gabal Abu Ghneim) in East Jerusalem. (In addition to his other worries, Netanyahu's government faces in the "Bar-On affair" an enquiry reminding some observers of Watergate).
Summing up the first half year in office of Binyamin Netanyahu, Labor MK Uzi Baram called him "the worst prime minister Israel ever had." H~ said that "it is now clear that there will not be peace because Netanyahu doesn't want it...He pays lip service to the political process but doesn't believe in it."
It is feared that following the Hebron agreement with the Pales~ans, the Israeli government has no intention of promoting the peace process as agreed upon in the Oslo accords, nor of entering into a serious dialogue with Syria.
But there is another side to the coin. The commitment of the Likud leader (however grudging) to honor the Oslo agreement in his talks with Arafat, the readiness to transfer territory to the PNA and to acquiesce in some form of expanded autonomy - these, in effect, herald the end of the Greater Israel concept which was the banner of Israel's nationalist and religious camp.
Further, Netanyahu is the most Americanized prime minister in Israel's history. The whole of his political thinking was shaped in the USA, including his positions both on socioeconomic affairs and on Israel's position in the world, particularly as regards the USA and Europe.
Aware of the American interest in a peaceful resolution of the Middle Eastern conflict, Netanyahu would be reluctant to be seen by the USA as an obstacle to peace. Particularly in Clinton's second term, would it not be disastrous for Netanyahu's political future were he to follow policies endangering the peace process? Such perspectives would also have grave economic as well as political ramifications. Netanyahu's policies have already brought about an economic slowdown. The peace process boosted the Israeli economy. Blocking it could threaten the present standard of living enjoyed by most Israelis.
Though much depends on Israel's partners, the Israeli leader has a cru<;ial role to play in peace making. While at home he faces nationalist-religious pressure from more extreme elements within his coalition, he can rely upon the more dovish opposition in the Knesset to bolster any peace moves he might make.
Unlike his tougher predecessor Yitzhak Shamir, there is much opportunism and unpredictability in Netanyahu's zigzag course. For instance, his decision to build a new Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem at Har Homa Oabal Abu Ghneim), though resting on broad support in the Israeli political spectrum, was seen by the Palestinians and the Syrians as "a declaration of war."
Nearby Gilo or Ramot or Giv'at Ze'ev were built in spite of Palestinian protests on land expropriated from them. The difference is that there was then no peace process. A unilateral act in Jerusalem so manifestly endangering the peace process was bound to arouse the strongest protest from the Palestinians, the whole Arab world, Europe and the international community, and to antagonize the USA.
The crisis was exacerbated by Israel's proposals, taken without any prior discussions with the Palestinians, over the extent of redeployment by Israeli forces in the West Bank. The Israeli leader is playing with fire and the result is a new vicious cycle of extremism, desperation and violence.
Lacking authority and consistency, the Israeli prime minister is seemingly incapable of withstanding pressure at home and impervious to the broader ramifications of his policies. His decisions are not part of a broad concept, for the sole "vision" which appears to move him is that of remaining in power. After taking a positive step like signing the Hebron agreement, which enhances the peace process, he follows with the disastrous Har Homa Oabal Abu Ghneim) decision which undermines all confidence in his real intentions. Without that degree of mutual confidence which Netanyahu constantly fails to engender, the future of the peace process is jeopardized.
Only time will tell whether Netanyahu will approach the fateful decisions which lie ahead in the permanent-status negotiations in the understanding that nothing can be attained without a genuine respect for the other party and a sincere readiness for compromise. Meanwhile, the omens don't look too hopeful.

We hope our readers will enjoy this double issue and we apologize again for our being behind schedule.

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