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Netanyahu's Course: Can He End Israel's Bunker Mentality?

When the time comes for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take the difficult decisions ahead for him in the peace process, he will surely cite the broad margin of support he got from Israeli Jews to justify his stands.

The popular vote disguised that margin. It was so close that almost 48 hours elapsed after the polls closed before the authorities confirmed Mr. Netanyahu's victory. While his winning margin of 9/10ths of 1 percent might appear to give the new leader a very restricted mandate, that is not the way his Likud followers interpret it. They emphasize that Netanyahu won 55 percent of the votes of Israel's Jews as compared with Shimon Peres's 45 percent, stressing that Peres came close to winning only because of the near total support Israeli Arab voters gave him.

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Netanyahu has reiterated his commitment to translate into action his campaign slogan of "Peace with Security." He has issued statements aimed at reassuring regional parties, including the Palestinians and the broader world community, about his desire for peace. He has not hesitated in years past, when it suited his purposes, to be rough tongued about America's Middle East policy, and he well knows that he was not Washington's preferred candidate. But this is his moment to reach out to the Americans and the Arabs and to call for reconciliation between his fellow Israelis, whose divided opinions on how best to ensure their country's future were laid bare in the recent campaign. Hopefully, he means what he says.

Clinton's support for peace

In turn, President Clinton has stated that the United States will continue to support Israel as it takes risks for the sake of peace, the same theme he used to encourage the Yitzhak Rabin-Shimon Peres governments.

The Israeli election results embarrassed Mr. Clinton, who had made unusually public his hope that Mr. Peres would continue to lead Israel for another term. Clinton will not now turn his back on the peace process, even though he must realize that it will move more slowly than if Peres had been reelected. Nor will he try to use America's $3 billion annual assistance programs as leverage to keep Israel moving forward on the peace track.

How much continuity in the peace process can we expect? How different will a Likud government under Netanyahu be from Peres's Labor government?

The new prime minister will respect Israel's obligations under its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. His differences with Labor on the other Arab issues will center on the Palestinians and the effort to reach an understanding with Syria.

Prospects for continuity in these two cases are poor. Netanyahu has long stood against an independent state for the Palestinians, encouraged the expansion of Israeli settlement activity on the West Bank, and asserted that retention of the Golan Heights is vital to Israeli security.

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Yasser Arafat has been criticized by Palestinians for making a bad deal with Israel at Oslo in 1993. Frustrated by a lack of any improvement in their economic situation and seized with new doubts about their political future in the wake of the Israeli elections, the Palestinians could reject their own leadership and slide back into rebellion, which this time could be less controlled than the intifadah of 1989-'92.

Peres suspended Israeli-Syrian talks in March. While Washington had characterized those talks as broad-ranging and serious, both Americans and Israelis were showing signs of impatience that the talks were moving so slowly. Netanyahu has said in the past that continuation of the state of "no war/no peace" between Syria and Israel with Israel remaining in occupation of the Golan Heights was the best achievable arrangement. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad may partly agree with this in the sense that he has thus far kept silent about his views on what he means by "full peace" with Israel.

However, holding to the status quo on Golan also ensures that Syria will continue to see that southern Lebanon, Israel's so-called "security zone," remains a battlefield where the Shiite militia, Hizbullah, freely attacks Israeli targets. This could eventually provoke an Israeli attack on Syrian targets.

Some Likud supporters argued before the elections that Netanyahu might act in the peace process as surprisingly as Nixon did in sponsoring the American opening to China. They claimed that only Likud will be able to negotiate agreements with the Palestinians and Syrians on which the Israeli side and its interlocutors might agree, citing Menachim Begin's success in negotiating peace with Egypt.

Rocky road ahead

Unfortunately, comparisons with both Nixon and Begin are facile. As he pursues his governance, Netanyahu may find that the hard line on security taken by his own party, and the position on the "Land of Israel" taken by his supporters in the religious parties, will lead only to deadlock in negotiations and reinforcement of the bunker mentality that many Israelis thought they had finally left behind.

Whether he will develop the political will and sufficient following to challenge those forces in his own party and coalition is far from certain. All that is clear is that the road ahead for Prime Minister Netanyahu will be far rockier than was Begin's path to the peace treaty with Egypt, which required the closing of the Sinai settlements and the pullback from that area.

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