Peres finds it tough to reverse Israelis' `fortress mentality.' Past makes many Israelis wary of relying on others' good will
The mixed reaction here to Prime Minister Shimon Peres's latest European tour speaks volumes about Israel's ambivalent attitude toward the world community. The Israeli public and press were generally unimpressed with their leader's warm receptions in the Netherlands, Britain, and West Germany. Instead, headlines here are still about the failure of Minister Without Portfolio Ezer Weizman to set a date for a summit between Mr. Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Mr. Weizman came away from his trip to Egypt last week empty-handed. His trip has been attacked not only by the rival Likud government faction, but also by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the No. 2 man in Peres's Labor Party.
The attacks on Weizman's trip have made Peres's aides nervous at a time when they are thinking about ways to break up the uneasy coalition between Labor and Likud and call early elections. Some of Peres's advisers speak of a need to change policy and play hardball with both Egypt and Jordan in an effort to appease Israeli public opinion.
Depending on how far and how fast the policy change is, it could undo the progress Peres has made in the past 15 months in rebuilding Israel's image with the West and convincing Israelis that it is better to work with the world than in isolation.
It is a short jump for most Israelis to make from disappointment with Egypt to suspicion of the intentions of much of the world. Peres has been trying to reverse an Israeli belief in ``fortress Israel'' as the only answer for a tiny country surrounded by hostile neighbors. This feeling reached its height when Menachem Begin was in power (1977-84). But Peres's failure to improve ties with Egypt dramatically or produce a breakthrough toward peace talks with Jordan is causing even close aides to reevaluate the policy of openness to the world that he has come to symbolize.
``Peres has still to prove that his attitude, which is the opposite of Begin's, is the right one for Israel's survival,'' says Yeshayahu Anug, head of the Foreign Ministry's European desk. ``Peres is trying to convince us all that the world is not as bad as Begin portrayed it. But he shows a good face and gets no response.''
Egypt's resistance to an early summit is seen here as evidence of disinterest in improving ties. The corollary of that conclusion is that the Labor Party and Peres were foolish to insist that a longstanding Egypt-Israel border dispute over Taba, in the Sinai, be sent to arbitration.
The trouble for Peres stems both from the nature of the current government and from Israel's traumatic past. Israeli fear of relying on the goodwill of the world reaches back to the Holocaust, which still has immeasurable impact on this nation and its approach to the world.
What many electorates would view as statesmanship or restraint, Israelis are often inclined to consider weakness in their leaders. A nation born in the aftermath of the slaughter of millions of Jews and having since fought five wars, Israel has come to value unyielding strength above all other traits in its politicians.
Even Peres, known for his emotional reserve and aloofness, seemed visibly shaken during his brief visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp last week. In later speeches, he told his German audience that he felt he represented the pain and the hope of the Jewish people and that he could neither forget nor forgive the Holocaust.
But Peres's style has been quite different from the seven years of Likud leadership. In West Germany, he spoke of the ``new Germany'' emerging and Israel's willingness for reconciliation. When he spoke of the Holocaust, he did so in terms of the need for all nations to ensure that such a tragedy never again befalls any people.
``Begin regarded continuous hatred of Germans as a very important component of Jewish moral strength,'' Mr. Anug says. A veteran diplomat, Anug sees Peres's efforts to reconstruct Israel's relations with the West as the rebirth of a policy started by David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and Peres's mentor.
The dialogue with the outside world, Anug says, began to unravel as the Labor Party lost its ideological energy and ability to launch new regional peace initiatives. A completely new tack, attacking the West and isolating Israel, was taken when Begin came to power in 1977.
``Ben-Gurion was tactically forced to come back to the fortress theme on occasion,'' Anug says. ``But his strategic goal was always to establish a healthy dialogue between a reborn Zionist entity and the outside world. Peres is adopting some of Ben-Gurion's vision at a more difficult time. He is projecting a very much more appealing image of Israel.''
But that image does hold well with many Israelis, who believe that when the chips are down, the outside world can be counted on only to abandon Israel. At the moment, Peres is riding high in public opinion polls with an approval rating of some 67 percent. He also has scored points in the United States and in Europe.
The question now is how long Peres will pursue his conciliatory line with the outside world before the pressures of domestic policies force him to retreat and retrench within ``fortress Israel.''
Critics of Peres, such as Meron Benvenisti, say that much of his presentation has been a question of style rather than substance anyway. In his latest report on the status of the West Bank, Dr. Benvenisti said that under the government headed by Peres, 1985 had been a more repressive year for West Bank Palestinians than under Likud governments. Deportations and administrative detentions were reinstituted. Arrests were stepped up and no progress was made toward creating a viable political or economic infrastructure on the West Bank.
Peres's supporters blame the lack of progress on the West Bank on their coalition partners, the hard-line Likud. If Peres manages to win a large enough majority in national elections to form a government without the Likud, they say, conditions will quickly improve.
Analysts say that, as pressure increases on Peres and the October deadline for handing over his premiership nears, the coming weeks will give a better idea of how lasting are the changes he is trying to make in Israel's dealings with its neighbors and the West.