Labor Victory in Israel Expected to Be Boon for Mideast Peace Talks

The Labor Party’s victory in the Israeli elections is expected to jump-start the Middle East peace process, say Middle East analysts. But that alone is no guarantee of smooth progress, they caution.

American Jewish organizational leaders are hoping the impending change of government will also reduce the recent tension in U.S.-Israeli relations and lead to an early resolution of the dispute over Israel’s request for $10 billion in U.S.-guaranteed loans.

In Washington, Secretary of State James Baker said he looked forward to the peace talks progressing.

“I would hope that we could see the next round of bilateral discussions taking place just as soon as it is conveniently possible in the aftermath of the formation of a new Israeli government,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Direct bilateral talks involving Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians began last fall in Madrid and were followed by four rounds of negotiations in Washington.

The parties have agreed upon Rome as the site for the next session, but a date has not been set. With Yitzhak Rabin expected by many to form a Labor-led coalition government within three weeks, a July date for the talks is considered a possibility.

Adam Garfinkle of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia believes the influence of the new Israeli government on the peace process will be dramatic.

“When Rabin says he intends to negotiate a self-governing agreement with the Palestinians in nine months, he means it,” said Garfinkle.

He said he expects three major changes in the proposal for Palestinian self-governance that the outgoing Shamir government had presented to the peace talks.

First, the number of functional areas where the Palestinians would be in charge would increase, “perhaps dramatically.” Palestinian delegates had angrily rejected the present Israeli proposal, saying it gave them little freedom other than to collect their own garbage.

Second, said Garfinkle, “the prospect of a joint veto over land and water will be raised, without which no solution can be envisaged.”

Finally, Rabin’s negotiators are likely to propose an explicit role for Jordan in maintaining security in the populated areas of the West Bank that Israel might leave, said Garfinkle.

NEW HOPE FOR LOAN GUARANTEES

Given these changes, “I think an agreement will be reached,” said Garfinkle. “The main problem is not the Israeli side. It’s whether the Palestinian side is coherent enough to accept any offer.

“I think the U.S. will be cheered by the amendments in the Israeli position and will turn to the Palestinians and say, essentially, ‘Nu?’ And the Palestinians will have to come up with an answer.”

Garfinkle expects the strength of the Palestinian negotiating team among its own constituency to be enhanced after Rabin announces a freeze on “political settlements,” as he pledged in the election campaign.

“That will be a grand gesture,” he said. “A settlement freeze would allow Hanan Ashrawi and Faisal Husseini to turn to their loose constituency and say, ‘We have achieved something we’ve been wanting.’”

A settlement freeze also would likely secure the $10 billion in loan guarantees Israel is seeking over the next five years for immigrant resettlement. Bush had conditioned the U.S. guarantees on a settlement freeze, which Shamir refused to offer.

With November’s U.S. presidential election shaping up as an unexpectedly close race, Bush is believed to want to provide the guarantees to regain the support of Jewish Republicans.

That outcome would be clearly welcomed by American Jewish organizational leaders.

While cautioning that there is no certainty that Israel will now be able to obtain the humanitarian assistance, the Bush administration “has told us the loan guarantees are not dead and that whoever was elected prime minister would be invited to visit the U.S.,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“We will have to see what the new government will decide in the nature of the guarantees and the amount to request,” he said in a telephone call Tuesday night from Israel.

Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said, “I trust the traditionally warm relations between the U.S. and Israel will be quickly resumed and that the administration will act promptly on the loan guarantees.”

One American supporter of Likud blamed Bush and Baker for Labor’s sweep in Tuesday’s elections.

“The decisive factor in this election was Bush and Baker’s manipulation of the loan guarantee package, which affected Likud’s ability to generate jobs for new immigrants,” charged Howard Barbanel, chairman of the Likud Young Leadership organization in New York.

“By directly hitting immigrants in the pocket book, they helped influence the election,” he said.

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