We asked two veteran commentators to evaluate the latest Middle East peace plan. Their comments follow.
So here we are. It's deja 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 …