Will the Mideast Peace Process Stay On Track?

When we last left the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the supposedly right-wing, anti-peace Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, had agreed to hand 13 percent of the West Bank over to the Palestinian Authority. After completing the first phase of the withdrawal, however, Netanyahu's coalition collapsed and new elections were scheduled for May. To further add to the uncertainty of the peace process, King Hussein died suddenly and left questions about the stability of Israel's other peace partner.

So what happens now?

First, the election campaign gave Israel a reason to halt the peace process with the Palestinians, though it had already become stalemated by the failure of the Palestinians to live up to their obligations under the Wye River accord signed last October in which Israel promised the additional land. When the Israeli withdrawal was complete, the Palestinians would control roughly 40 of the formerly occupied territory. After withdrawing from the first 9 percent and releasing Palestinian prisoners, as required in the phased plan agreed to at Wye, it became clear the Palestinians were not prepared to fulfill their commitments. While the Palestinian Charter calling for Israel's destruction was finally annulled (five years after Arafat first agreed to do so), the Palestinians have not prevented incitement and terrorism, collected illegal weapons, or reduced their police force to the limit specified in the Oslo agreements.

Still, contrary to what the extreme Israeli right thinks, the withdrawal from territory not needed for security, and heavily populated by Palestinians, was alone a positive development. Getting its troops out of the territories is, in fact, the only real accomplishment from Israel's perspective from the entire process given that there has been nearly constant Palestinian terrorism and no peace since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993. Even the relatively small redeployment was too much for some members of Netanyahu's coalition, however, and they succeeded in bringing down the Netanyahu government.

The Israeli election is now essentially a three-way race between Netanyahu, his former Defense Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. Though Netanyahu campaigns as the tough guy protecting Israeli security from the danger of a Palestinian state, he cannot trump the military credentials of his opponents, both of whom are authentic war heroes.

The irony is that despite the slogans and rhetoric, the peace process with the Palestinians will end the same way regardless who wins. For security reasons, Israel cannot withdraw much beyond what Netanyahu already agreed to at the Wye Plantation. Neither of his opponents advocate doing so.

The main difference is style: The supposedly pr-savvy Netanyahu will carry out Israel's obligations kicking and screaming, and only after the Palestinians comply with their commitments. Mordechai and Barak will give up the same territory, or perhaps a few square kilometers more, but will do so willingly, which will help erase Israel's current image as the obstacle to peace. They will probably also adopt Yitzhak Rabin's approach to Palestinian violations of the agreements, that is, ignore them so that Israel can get its troops out of the territories it doesn't need and secure those it does.

Like Netanyahu, neither of the other candidates is going to compromise on the unity of Jerusalem, though Mordechai and Barak are more likely to accept the idea of allowing the Palestinians to declare a suburb of the city (Abu Dis) their capital. Another distinction is that the Centrist and Labor candidates will not build new settlements, but they will not accede to Palestinian demands to uproot the settlers either.

One other substantive difference between the candidates is that Netanyahu is less likely than his rivals to make any compromise on the Golan Heights to make peace with Syria. This probably doesn't matter, however, since Syrian President Hafez Assad was not willing to exchange peace for virtually the whole Golan when Rabin offered it to him.

Meanwhile, Yasir Arafat seems determined to end the process by unilaterally declaring a Palestinian state. He has decided to put off his planned announcement until after the Israeli election because he knows that it would otherwise help Netanyahu's chances of winning. The Palestinians will get their state; that's been inevitable since Menachem Begin (yes, another anti-peace, hardliner) agreed to grant them autonomy in the territories. The only questions are when it will happen and how large the state will be. By acting unilaterally, Arafat can answer the first at the expense of the second. Israel will justifiably declare the peace process complete when Arafat declares independence and the Palestinians will be stuck with a checkerboard entity in roughly 36 percent of the West Bank and Gaza.

Then again, why should Arafat wait? He is 69 years old, suffers from Parkinson's disease and does not want to die before realizing his dream. Even if he waits, he's unlikely to get much more than 40 percent of the territories, so he doesn't have that much to lose. Every country in the world, with the possible exception of the United States (and that will only be temporary), and Israel, will recognize the new state. Arafat will be a hero, having delivered independence to his people.

The real wild card now is Jordan. Israel's policy toward the Palestinians has been predicated on the assurance that it will have peace with Jordan and that it was in King Hussein's interest to keep the Palestinian state weak so it would not threaten his regime (and by extension Israel). King Abdallah has indicated he plans to follow his father's lead in relations with Israel, but no one knows if he can do it. Jordan's neighbors, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, have all had designs on the kingdom over the years and the first two, especially, may very well test Abdallah's leadership. The royal family has its own palace intrigues related to King Hussein's decision to abruptly name his son as heir instead of his brother Hassan, which could lead to upheaval. In addition, the majority of the Jordanian population is Palestinian and they may finally take to heart the right-wing Israeli admonition that Jordan is Palestine. Already, Arafat has expressed a renewed interest in a confederation with Jordan that would undermine Jordan's sovereignty.

A Palestinian-controlled Jordan would be a disaster for Israel. Instead of a small checkerboard state in a territory with no resources and limited opportunities to build a military capability, the Palestinians would suddenly have a large country and a modern army. Instead of a pro-Western monarchy working for stability in the region, you could have a radical state joining with Syria and/or Iraq to threaten Israel and the moderate Arab states. In addition, Islamic fundamentalists, who adamantly oppose peace with Israel and Western influence, make up a significant core of the Palestinian population and will be a destabilizing force inside Jordan and Palestine.

Israel's democracy will resolve its leadership crisis in May. The Palestinians will probably have their state shortly afterward. What will become of Jordan is less certain. For now, the stability of Jordan should be the top priority of the West. The fall of Abdallah could set in motion events with far-reaching consequences, most of which would be harmful to U.S. interests, which means a virtually unknown 37-year-old, who has been in power less than a month, is suddenly the lynchpin to American Middle East policy,