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Behind the Headlines 1979 Prospects for the New Year

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This attempt at crystal ball-gazing is made on the premise that 1979 will be the year of peace with Egypt. At the time of writing that happy condition is not yet secure. But the indications, from Jerusalem, Cairo and Washington, increasingly point to the three parties desire to revive the stalked treaty negotiations and wrap up the remaining, relatively minor, points of dispute.

Should there be no peace, despite the favorable prospects and despite the enormous progress that has been made towards that goal over the past year, then the outlook for 1979 will be bleak indeed. The hopes and expectations have been raised so high that their non-fulfillment could trigger a steep and treacherous decline. But, assuming that the treaty will indeed be concluded, and soon, 1979 will be a dramatic year for Israel, a year that will echo for years and decides to come.

UNFOLDING OF THE PEACE PROCESS

The unfolding of the peace process is prescribed in meticulous detail in the Third Annex to the draft treaty. Immediately upon this signing, the Suez Canal is to be opened to Israeli shipping, begging the Israeli flag. That will be the first, and for the moment the only tangible element of normalization. For the subsequent nine months Israel’s army will be ongaged on the mammoth task of dismantling its bases and defense lines in western Sinai in time for the interim pullback to the El {SPAN}###rish-Ras Muhammad line.{/SPAN}The diplomats, meanwhile, will be grappling with the “modalities” of the projected Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza, with the aim of arranging for elections to be held there before the year’s end. At present, there is little or no evidence that the Palestinians will be disposed to participate in the elections, and thereby in the peace process.

But a year is a long time, especially in the Arab world. Egypt’s influence is a force to be reckoned with. Saudi Arabia, plainly frightened by the turmoil in Iran, may yet swing its massive weight behind Sadat, bringing other moderates along with it. (Altogether, the Iranian factor in any future equation is necessarily an unknown, as the havoc? and turmoil in that unhappy land continues and the battle for ultimate power goes on.

Much has been written on the workability or otherwise of all the various components of the Comp David agreements. Suffice it to say here that there is sincere goodwill on the part of the Israeli government or certainly on the part of Premier Menachem Begin, Foreign minister Moshe-Dayan, and Defense Minister. Ezer Weizman — and the majority of the ministers. To the right of the coalition and the Likud there are the doubters.

But political and public opinion a whole is genuinely eager for the peace with Egypt and genuinely ready to give the autonomy a fair try in the hope that it will bring to the fore a moderate and responsible indigenous leadership among the Palestinians.

OTHER PROBLEMS WILL NOT VANISH

But even if all goes as well as possible on the peace front, Israel’s problems will not vanish. On the contrary, many of them will be exacerbated and others that have long {SPAN}###{/SPAN} dormant will return to the forefront of public preoccupation.

First and foremost there is the economy. Finance Minister Simcha Ehrlich, presently fighting for his political future against a head-on attack from fellow Liberal Minister Yitzhak Modai, candidly told a Jerusalem audience last week that part of the “price of peace” would be three very tough years, in economic terms, starting with 1979.

Inflation, which topped 50 percent in 1978, is unlikely to recede what with the sums to be poured into the work of rolling back from Sinai and even more significant, building the eventual new defenses in the Negev and the substitute air bases there.

In the very first week of the new year there were ominous signs of new labor unrest in the offing Histadrut demanded cost-of-living compensation payment for salaried persons with their January wage checks. With inflation over the last quarter of the old year running at more than five percent a month, the Histadrut leaders contended that workers could not wait until April for their COL increments. The government and private employers, predictably, balked at this.

Whatever level of American aid is eventually agreed upon, it is already clear that the economic burden on the shoulders of every Israeli breadwinner will grow even heavier as a result of the cost of peace and withdrawal. In the long term, of course, peace is likely to bring investments and economic prosperity. But 1979, at any rate, and the years immediately following, are going to be hard for Israelis, and Ehrlich deserves credit at least for not seeking to distort the hard truth.

PROBLEM OF SOCIAL UNREST

The peace can also be expected to trigger — or catalyze — new waves of social unrest. It was no accident that the Black Panther phenomenon — the rowdy, sometimes violent, awakening of what has been called “the second Israel” to its social plight — came during 1971-72, the period of (false) tranquility on the borders, when the nation felt it could shift its preoccupations from defense and foreign policy to its domestic affairs.

The problems highlighted during those demonstrations in the early-seventies are still a long way from resolution. The joint government – Jewish Agency “Project Renewal” scheme for facelifting some 160 depressed neighborhoods is one promising plan for attacking the social gap. But its implementation will take many years and the advent of peace may well release demands and expectations that will not brook delay.

The alleviation of the threat of war may also bring to the surface the religion-secular ideological conflict that has been simmering beneath Israeli society virtually since the State was born. It is perhaps no coincidence that a near-crisis in the coalition over theater performances in Tel Aviv on Friday nights came in the first days of the new year.

The National Religious Party threatened to bolt the government when the city of Tel Aviv agreed to allow a municipal owned theater to schedule Friday night performances. The crisis was temporarily averted when Mayor Shlomo Lehat bowed to a personal plea from Begin to cancel the permit for Friday night performances.

It seemed to reflect a pent-up determination in secularist and religious camps — now that peace was at hand — to return to the days of open conflict over the “status quo,” days that had been virtually forgotten since the Yom Kippur War because the years since then have been taken up with the weightier considerations of war and peace.

The peace, then will bring on the off -predicted test and strain upon the fabric and cohesion of Israeli society, with religions and secular forces inevitably stepping up their effort to mold the still developing society after their own image.

IDEOLOGICAL ISSUES TO THE FORE

To date these forces have been held in check by the exigencies of the ongoing state of war. But with the advent of peace, ideologies and personalities can be expected to clash with “no holds barred” and only time will tell whether the Israeli body politic is strong enough and well founded enough to stand this buffeting and emerge whole and wholesome.

Most of the religious and ideological struggles that certainly lie ahead will be played out over a period much longer than one calendar year. But one at least, that between the Gush Emunim and the legally constituted power of the state is likely to come to a head during the next 12 months as the pullback from Sinai becomes a reality and the Palestinian autonomy begins to take shape.

To date, Premier Begin has shown himself tougher and more aware of the threat posed to democracy by the Gush than his Labor Party predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin. If he continues to stand up to the Gush during the months ahead he will have convincingly quashed this challenge to the rule of law in Israel and will have set a useful precedent for the challenges that lie ahead.

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