Where will Israelis and Palestinians be on May 4, 1999?
Israelis don't know who will be leading their state, and
Palestinians don't know if they'll have one at all.
What is clear is that the five-year "interim phase" stipulated by
the Oslo peace accords officially stops ticking on that date. In
anticipation of its arrival, Israelis and Palestinians face
internal debates over how to proceed in what could be the most
momentous period - or possibly the most explosive - in the peace
process thus far.
Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has said he will declare an
independent state on May 4. At that time, Israelis may have a new
prime minister - or may be in the thick of an election campaign.
The path to new elections, which heated up this week, has put both
peoples' political circuits into disarray.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's former finance minister, Dan
Meridor, resigned from the Likud Party Tuesday and said he will run
for prime minister as the leader of a new centrist party. The late
Menachem Begin's son, Benny Begin, may either challenge Mr.
for the leadership of Likud or form a far-right party. Defense
Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, both
popular in Likud, are also considering challenges to Netanyahu. The
maneuverings have been read by many as signals that the once-mighty
Likud is splintering to pieces.
In perhaps an equally potent blow to the status of the Labor
Party, Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak - a former army chief of staff
and known peace advocate - is forfeiting his natural home on a Labor
ticket, albeit as No. 2, to party chairman Ehud Barak. Mr. Lipkin-
Shahak is expected to announce that he, too, will run as the leader
of the new centrist party - which could eventually cause Mr. Meridor
to cede his candidacy to the popular ex-chief of staff.
The fact that Israelis seem so anxious to join a middle-of-the-
road political party may signify the melding of the Labor and Likud
movements. The 1993 land-for-peace deal highlighted the sharp
divisions between the two. But especially in the wake of Netanyahu's
reluctant acceptance of those accords in 1996, Likud moderates have
grown to support trading land for peace with the Palestinians.
Another issue that shows blurred lines between Likud and Labor is
the presence of Israeli troops in southern Lebanon. Members of both
parties have called for a quick solution to the situation, possibly
with a controversial, unilateral withdrawal. The matter may be
pushed onto the elections agenda following a botched Israeli attack
on Tuesday and Wednesday's retaliation by Hizbullah guerrillas.
"We are at the threshold of tremendous change in Israeli politics,
because ideological differences between Likud and Labor have almost
disappeared," says Michael Bar-Zohar, a former Labor Knesset member
and political adviser to Labor leaders such as Shimon Peres and
Yitzhak Rabin. …