As Shamir steps in, Israeli status quo seems safe. New leader's party shows no sign of radical policy change
Yitzhak Shamir's imminent return to the Israeli premiership has left his party scrambling to figure out what policies it will pursue in the months to come. Maintaining the status quo both domestically and in foreign policy seems to the one clear goal of Mr. Shamir's hard-line Likud bloc supporters only days before he becomes prime minister. That goal may allay Arab leaders' fears of new Israeli adventurism and ensure continued good relations between Israel and the United States, but it offers little hope to Israelis that the nation's most chronic problems will be tackled, analysts here say.
If all goes as planned, Shamir will become prime minister Tuesday and Shimon Peres, head of the centrist Labor Party, will take over as foreign minister for the next two years.
Anticipating this moment, the Likud suffered through two often acrimonious years in a Cabinet that was equally divided between Labor and its allies and Likud and its allies. As of Tuesday, the Likud will be in charge of the premiership and every important economic portfolio.
Rotation, analysts here say, offers the Likud a golden opportunity to prove itself capable of governing. After seven years in power, from 1977 until 1984, the Likud bears the stigma of being the party that brought Israel a 485 percent annual inflation rate and embarked on the costly Lebanon invasion. Its single foreign policy success was the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, an accomplishment tarnished in the minds of many voters by the uneasy state of relations between the two nations.
For those hoping to see a more creative approach to leadership, however, the Likud's preparations for rotation could hardly have been less encouraging.
It was only three weeks ago that the party formed a policy planning committee to discuss what initiatives the Likud will pursue once it regains the premiership. The committee seems to have made no significant decisions.
In contrast, Mr. Peres's aides started discussing last May their plans to overhaul the moribund Foreign Ministry and position their boss to pursue Middle East peace initiatives. The outgoing prime minister has made it clear he will be an activist foreign minister, constantly pushing push the Cabinet to improve Israel's relations with Egypt and to pursue negotiations with Jordan over the future of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Shamir has expressed no similar interest in policy initiatives. He and other Likud leaders have dismissed Peres's attempts to restart the peace process as ``Shimon's effort to change the world.''
``Likud's position [on pursuing negotiations] is the traditional Israeli position,'' says Moshe Arens, a Likud minister without portfolio. Peres's view, ``that negotiations between Israel and Arab countries have to be direct face-to-face negotiations between the two parties,'' Mr. Arens says, ``has deviated somewhat'' from this. Arens and other Likud leaders have made it clear that they believe no Arab leader is ready to make such a move and that therefore, nothing should be expected of Israel.
``The Likud simply does not know how to govern,'' says Yossef Goell, a political scientist who lectures on Israeli politics at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. ``What they want to do is be the government. They don't know what they want to do when they get in government.''
Indeed, in interviews, Likud leaders stressed their desire simply to stay within the coalition guidelines signed by Shamir and Peres in September 1984, and to continue policies the government has followed since then.
``The title I would give our plan is `continuity,''' says senior Likud Knesset member Ehud Olmert, a close adviser to Shamir. ``We want to keep the goodwill toward Israel that has been established as a result of the last two years. In Lebanon, we won't get involved in any unnecessary military actions, and on the economy, we will try to continue the same policy. On the West Bank,'' he continues, ``we are bound by the coalition agreement.''
Such a cautious approach may encourage Israel's Arab neighbors. American diplomats report that the Arabs have privately expressed concern that the Shamir-led government may prove more belligerent than the Peres-led government.
Indeed, Shamir has devoted some energy in the past two weeks to saying what he would not do: he told an Egyptian journalist there was no need to be afraid of him; he told other reporters that he was in no hurry to build new settlements on the West Bank.
``I think Shamir has learned something in the past two years,'' says one Israeli official generally critical of Shamir. ``He has learned that you don't need to shout to pursue your policies, that you don't need to alienate the whole world, that maybe style does count. I think he will show restraint in his initial months in office.''
But such restraint is not good news for Israelis, say political scientists such as Mr. Goell, who are predicting that the next two years will feature a ``government of paralysis.''
``America is so big and so rich that it doesn't have to be governed well,'' Goell said.
``Israel doesn't have those margins for mistakes. Israel has been governed badly for the last 10 or 15 years. The country's leadership has focused totally on security affairs and everything else has been allowed to stagnate. This government is more of the same.''
Analysts here point to the severe deterioration of the nation's school system; continuing tensions between secular and religious Jews; the issue of Israel's use of nuclear technology, which surfaced recently when a British newspaper alleged Israel is manufacturing nuclear weapons; restructuring of the nation's capital markets; revitalization of its development towns; and preservation of its water resources as some of the most pressing areas where public debate and government initiative is sorely needed.
None of these perennial issues, however, appears likely to be resolved during the next two years, Likud, Labor, and independent analysts agree.
``What you will see,'' one analyst says, ``is that the major emphasis will shift from government per se to what is happening within the two major parties as they tackle their internal struggles for leadership and prepare for the next elections.''