The Rabin government’s razor-thin majority in last Friday’s Knesset vote has defined in the starkest possible way the state of political play in Israel as the country enters its election season.
The 61-59 vote in favor of ratifying the Interim Agreement for extending Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank – signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington on Sept. 28 – came after more than 14 hours of often raucous Knesset debate that began the night before and in the wake of demonstrations by Israeli settlers and their supporters.
More than 20,000 demonstrators gathered in downtown Jerusalem as the Knesset debate began to protest the agreement, calling Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a traitor to the Jewish state.
In the close vote, two of the Labor Party’s most outspoken hawks, Avigdor Kahalani and Emanuel Zismann, joined with the Likud-led opposition and, in effect, drummed themselves out of their party.
The two intend to forge a political party out of The Third Way movement – currently a grouping of politicians, professors and generals offering an alternative to Labor and Likud platforms – and to enter next year’s general elections on their own terms.
The defections of Kahalani and Zismann finally wiped out the notion of “Labor hawks.”
For many years, Rabin himself – as prime minister in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, and as defense minister in the unity governments of the 1980s – was the focus of all the Labor hawks’ efforts and loyalties.
He was their uncrowned leader, their champion, the man whose position in the party and in the country they strove to promote.
But now, irrevocably, that long period has ended.
Rabin can no longer, by and stretch of the imagination, be classified as a hawk within his own party.
Indeed, Labor no longer has any hawks.
The doves – men such as Yossi Beilin, Avraham Burg and Uzi Baram, who saw Foreign Minister Shimon Peres as their ideological leader – are now in the mainstream.
Those identifying with the hawks have had to toe the party line – or leave with Kahalani.
The final confirmation of this sea change within Labor was Rabin’s deliberately timed to coincide with the final negotiation of the Interim Agreement, that he no longer necessarily rules out a Palestinian state something in the future.
He later tempered that statement, saying that it would take “50 years” for the Palestinians to accomplish that goal.
But the number of years it will take is a question of degree. The core issue – partitioning Palestine and agreeing to Palestinian rule over part of the land – has been resolved as far as the Labor Party is concerned.
The battle with the Likud and its allies is now, as never before or since the 1967 Six-Day War, clear-cut and unequivocal.
Rabin’s wafer-thin Knesset majority may not last until the end of the Knesset’s current term. Another spate of terrorist attacks could terminally sap the government’s standing among the Israeli public and lead to its downfall.
But the prime minister, with eminent political soundness, is pressing ahead with his peace policy as though he had no parliamentary care in the world.
His purpose is twofold: * To fortify the irrevocability of the terms of the Interim Agreement, by implementing the Israel Defense Force’s redeployment from the main Palestinian population centers in the West Bank and then, next summer, extending Palestinian rule to some unpopulated areas of the West Bank. * With each advance in the peace process, to throw the rightist opposition further and further on the defensive, by pointing up the widening gap between the right’s political ideology and the practical situation on the ground.
In an effort to move forward with the peace process, and with facts on the ground, Peres and PLO leader Yasser Arafat met Saturday night at the Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza to finalize details of the timetable for the IDF redeployment in the West Bank.
Peres told Arafat that Israeli troops would redeploy from four West Bank villages in the coming weeks and that the Israeli army would withdraw from six West Bank population centers by December.
With Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority governing from the West Bank town of Ramallah – as they are scheduled to be by the start of 1996 – Rabin will be contending in the election campaign that only he has a policy tailored to the new realities, which, after all, he himself shaped.
The Likud’s policies, Rabin will argue, are no longer relevant to the situation currently existing in the West Bank.
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu will be hard put to respond with a platform of his own that at once addresses this new reality on the ground and at the same time maintains the basic tenets of the Likud’s ideology of a “Greater Israel.”
In this scenario, Rabin’s electoral fortunes, as well as the interests of the peace process itself, will be served by the speed and extend that he can push the process forward in the months ahead – despite the arithmetical fragility of his coalition government.
Government sources, outlining this analysis, focus on the terror threat as the one obvious element that can stop the prime minister’s plans dead in its tracks.
Opinion polls show an Israeli public largely unsympathetic with the West Bank Jewish settlers’ political and religious goals.
But they thoroughly identify with the settlers’ security concerns – which are intimately shared by Israelis living along the Green Line in places such as Kfar Saba and Ra’anana, which will soon be located a stone’s throw from autonomous Palestinian areas.
In an effort to deal with the terror issue, Rabin early this week allowed a group of Hamas leaders from the Gaza Strip to travel to Sudan to meet with Hamas officials there.
Prior to their departure for Sudan, Hamas militants reportedly reached an agreement with Arafat to stop launching terror attacks on Israelis from Palestinian autonomous areas.
Hamas leaders abroad are traditionally more hardline than their counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza, leaving it unclear whether the Gaza delegation would be able to win their support.
Despite denials from a Hamas spokesman in the Jordanian capital of Amman that any deal with worked out with Arafat, Palestinian and Israeli sources say they hope the visit to Sudan portends a move by the fundamentalists away from terror toward political activity, a move that may include Hamas participation in the upcoming Palestinian elections.
Such hopes are obviously tentative and may well be premature.
Because of this, Rabin, along with giving his consent to the group’s departure, ordered the continued closure of the territories.
In force since before Rosh Hashanah, the closure was scheduled to be extended until later this week.
Its specific purpose is to keep would-be terrorists outside of Israel and to give the Palestinian Authority, now preparing for its takeover of the West Bank cities, the opportunity to come to grips with the terror threat.