News Analysis: Midterm Crisis Threatens Labor Despite Political, Economic Coups

Two-and-a-half years into its current term, the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is being buffeted by waves of unpopularity that threaten to paralyze it until the next elections.

Worse still for Rabin, growing discontent may wreck the governing coalition altogether and force him to resign prematurely.

The polls show drastic slippage both in Rabin’s personal standing and in public support for his Labor Party, the leading force in the governing coalition.

The media have thrown a harsh spotlight on the polls and have added reams of analysis and commentary to them. As a result, some Laborites argue, they have succeeded in exacerbating and accelerating the downward trend in the government’s popularity.

A radio report last weekend, for example, which asserted that Labor and the Palestine Liberation Organization held illegal consultations before the last elections on how to influence Israeli Arab voting has caused a major furor.

The Likud opposition demanded a commission of inquiry, and Labor and PLO figures vigorously denied the allegations of collusion.

Ironically, the report cited a book on the peace process that was published – and reported on – three months ago, without causing a ripple. The book was written by Palestinian negotiator Mahmoud Abbas. Initial reports were carried by a major Arab newspaper and by the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Clearly, the sense of ill-fortune pervading the media’s coverage of the government at this time gave the story a new lease of life and contributed to its attaining the dimensions of a major political uproar.

But even the most diehard Laborites can hardly deny that a genuine feeling of disappointment pervades wide sections of the general public; disappointment both with the general state of the nation and with the government’s performance.

It is an atmosphere that has taken hold of Israel’s public with remarkable speed, just as a widespread euphoria swept the country in the wake of the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian accord of September 1993.

Indeed, it is this very volatility of public opinion that gives the government ministers and their Knesset colleagues grounds for hope that the present crisis, though prolonged, will prove transient.

They hope that all the current malaise is nothing more than a case of midterm blues that has so far refused to go away, but eventually will.

Political observers here generally point to the ongoing terrorist attacks, both in the territories and inside Israel proper, as the single major cause of the government’s decline in popularity.

In a way, this is surprising. No one, not even the most sanguine and ardent advocates of the peace agreement with the PLO, deluded themselves into believing that the implementation of this agreement would not be fraught with violence.

The same media wags who now point to the terror as a reflection of the Rabin government’s failure all predicted in the aftermath of the signing of the self- rule accord that terrorism would rise as Islamic fundamentalists and other rejectionists made a final, desperate effort to hold back the dawn of peaceful relations between the two nations.

Nor did the lamentable inadequacies of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s autonomous administration in the Gaza Strip and West Bank Jericho enclave come as a surprise to Israeli experts or to the wider public who follow their prognostications.

Many Israeli Arabists had long underscored the difficulties the PLO would face in transforming themselves from exiles in Tunisia to responsible leaders in Gaza.

What, then, is causing Rabin’s fall from grace in the public’s mind? Sources with access to the prime minister offer different theories: Some say that despite the somber predictions of an upsurge in terror and violence, Rabin is finding the steady toll of deaths and injuries hard to take.

The rightist opposition makes a point of recording each new death on placards outside the prime minister’s residences in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – a repeat of leftist opposition tactics during the Lebanon War in the early 1980s.

According to this interpretation, the TV-watching public has sensed the prime minister’s waning self-confidence, and he, in turn, has sensed the ebbing of public confidence in him. Others cite Rabin’s scarcely veiled impatience – some say contempt – with most of his cabinet colleagues. This sustained mood on the part of the premier has seeped through the entire Cabinet – and is causing deep and widespread depression, and even disaffection, in the ministerial ranks. A variation of this interpretation sees Rabin profoundly frustrated by the public’s lack of appreciation of the improvement in its collective economic condition.

Macro-economic indicators – especially unemployment and industrial growth – show a healthy economy. Yet many ordinary citizens complain that their disposable income is, if anything, shrinking.

Can Rabin pull through and face Likud challenger Benjamin Netanyahu in direct elections, the first in Israel’s history, in June 1996?

Some of his closest aides are counseling him to shake up the Cabinet, sack certain ministers, shuffle others, and bring in fresh blood to fill key posts.

But Rabin, ever one for political infighting, is balking at this advice.

Rather, the prime minister, backed strongly by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, seems to have resolved that his best option is to press ahead with the peace process, despite the present obstacles and the criticism and controversy it has already engendered.

Plainly, Rabin believes, there is no realistic way that he can distance himself and his party either from the agreement with Arafat or from his readiness to strike a land-for-peace deal with Syria.

Better then, he apparently believes, to achieve as much as possible of this dual agenda. Then he can go to the nation on the basis of this historic, strategic change in Israel’s situation and argue that current setbacks – especially the high incidence of terrorism – are transient.

Informed sources say that negotiations both on the Syrian track and on the Palestinian track are proceeding at a much faster pace than the media and public know.

Rabin and Arafat are scheduled to meet alone next week for talks on the Israeli army’s redeployment from major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank. Both leaders hope to keep the details secret.

At the same time, Israeli and Syrian military officers and diplomats are also expected to meet again soon in Washington.

Ultimately, though, this recipe for domestic political recovery through diplomatic successes depends o the other side at least as much as on Rabin and Peres themselves.

The weakness of the Palestinian Authority is a fact of regional life that could yet thwart even the most forthcoming Israeli policy positions on the Palestinian track.

And Syria’s Hafez Assad, master of procrastination, may prove simply incapable of making the conceptual leap toward peace with the “Zionist entity.”

Lastly, there is ample irony in the notion that Israel’s political community was thrown into an uproar this week by vague allegations of collusion between Labor and the Arabs before the last elections.

For by any realistic reckoning, those same Arabs, in their open and above-the- table dealings with the Labor government in the months ahead, could well determine the outcome of the next election.

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