Likud Discovers Reality

It took nearly two years, but the Likud appears to have finally awakened from its slumber and realized the Oslo process is not a nightmare, but a reality. With elections on the horizon, political necessity has forced the Likud to develop a policy other than opposition to the Labor approach. Israeli voters want peace as the goal and many are willing to consider an alternative to what some see as a dangerous unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and potentially the Golan Heights. Even if Likud agreed with the Labor approach, it would have to devise another policy just to distinguish itself.

It may come as a surprise to some people that Ariel Sharon was one of the first people to publicly start the process of crafting a Likud alternative. In a Jerusalem Post column at the beginning of the year, Sharon acknowledged the Oslo process is unlikely to be reversed. His emphasis is on reducing what he sees as the danger of the agreements. Some of his suggestions include creating security belts under Israeli control east of the Green Line and west of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, and beside the main roads connecting the shoreline with Jordan River and Dead Sea. The idea is reasonable, but his suggestion that these areas be as wide as 12 miles is probably impractical. He opposes giving Palestinians control over towns near the Green Line and believes a permanent Israeli force must be present in areas (Zone B) where the Palestinian Authority has responsibility for civil affairs. Sharon accepts that Hebron will come under Palestinian authority but suggests creating a walled Jewish quarter to secure the Jewish presence there.

Sharon deserves credit for accepting the results of the negotiations to this point and for advancing ideas that, to my mind, are reasonable given his ideology. Perhaps the biggest problem with his proposals is that they are palliatives. Instead of trying to put a bandage on the peace process, or retard it, Sharon should use his well-known military boldness to offer an option that enhances the peace process.

Recently, Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu announced he too finally was working on a new approach. He has said he would not try to reverse the facts on the ground created by Oslo, but that he would close down PLO institutions like Orient House in Jerusalem. His anti-PLO rhetoric has softened, if only slightly, and the once outlandish prospect of the Likud negotiating with Arafat is now being considered if the PLO Covenant is revoked. The Likud continues to resist the idea of withdrawal from the Golan Heights so talks with Syria would certainly change, assuming Assad would continue them at all. Netanyahu is not likely to move too far to the center, especially given the continuing rabid opposition to the Oslo agreements by rivals like Benny Begin.

Oddly enough, while everyone has begun carrying on about the necessity for Arafat to revoke the Covenant, Shimon Peres may actually be better off if the PLO fails to act. The Israeli government has now given the Palestinians all that it really needs to concede. It’s rid the country of responsibility for most of the hostile Palestinian population and remains in control of strategically vital areas. There’s no interest in compromising on Jerusalem, making further territorial withdrawals, discussing the fate of settlements or allowing Palestinian refugees to return. If the Covenant isn’t changed now, Peres can freeze the situation on the ground. Politically, the move will make him look tough for the electorate. Substantively, Israel would be better off calling Oslo II the end of the process and focusing all its efforts — in Likud-like fashion — on insuring the new borders of Israel are secure. Let Arafat be President of a rump state in Gaza and a fraction of the West Bank. Focus on increasing military cooperation with King Hussein to put Palestine in a vice.

Having just returned from Israel, the conventional wisdom is the aftereffect of the Rabin assassination insures that Peres will easily win reelection. Even if this is true, the newfound realism among Likud leaders will benefit the party in the long run by restoring its credibility and presenting a reasonable alternative to Labor policies.