LAST week's Israeli elections remain somewhat of a mystery to political observers. By opting for the Likud Party's Benjamin Netanyahu, the voters have sent out mixed signals, especially on the future of the West Asia peace process. Faced with a choice between peace and continuing strife, the Israelis seem to have chosen the latter.
But whether Netanyahu will actually accede to the extreme right wingers in his party and reverse the peace process remains unclear. The difficulty in assessing Netanyahu's real intentions stems from the lack of consistency in his background. In the past he was very close to Ariel Sharon, a prominent military officer, who was defence minister from 1981 to 1983 and known for his hawkish views. In fact, right up to the assassination of Yitzak Rabin early this year, Netanyahu played an active part in the massive demonstrations organised by the extreme right wing against the government's peace policy formulated at Oslo.
But the trauma of Rabin's assassination severed Netanyahu from the extreme right wing to the extent that he publicly accepted the Oslo agreement as being a fait accompli. Netanyahu now speaks about a continuation of the peace process with the Palestinians, but with a strong insistence on protecting the security interests of Israel.
In his June 2 victory speech, Netanyahu indicated his tilt towards pragmatism and the moderate right, visibly upsetting the members of the extreme right. He also did not refer to the holy of holies of the extreme right wing: the settlements in the territories, also referred to as the Greater Land of Israel. Instead, he spoke about his intention of being prime minister for all Israelis, unlike the hawkish Yitzak Shamir government (1983-84 and 1988-92) which gave preference to settlers while ignoring the economic, social and cultural needs of other Israelis. His pledge to improve the lot of Israeli Arabs came as another severe jolt to the right wingers in his party.
And so, the rift between hardliners and moderates in the Likud is likely to intensify further, leading to speculation that Netanyahu might even form a national unity government with the defeated Labour Party. The main difference betweenthe hardliners and the moderates within the Likud is over the concept of the Greater Land of Israel, which the former feel includes most of the land occupied by the Palestinians. They have a messianic approach and this is regarded as a religious matter. Among the leaders of this stream of thought is Sharon. Although he isn't personally religious, he represents the extreme religious circles who profess hatred for all foreigners in general and Arabs in particular. The more moderate elements of the Likud, however, feel the idea of the Greater Land of Israel does not necessarily mean forcible occupation of the Palestinian land, but should instead be achieved by establishing an economic commonwealth or political confederation.
Sharon has already declared that Israel will not carry out redeployment in the West Bank city of Hebron as required by the Oslo agreement, forcing Netanyahu's office to clarify that only the prime minister was authorised to make declarations on this matter. If Netanyahu does stick to the commitment on redeployment—and the American ambassador to Israel has already announced that the US administration expects this commitment to be carried out—a confrontation between Netanyahu and the extreme right will come earlier than expected. In fact, one of the main reasons behind Netanyahu's apparent willingness to continue the peace process is the need to check the extreme polarisation of Israeli society, which was vividly reflected in the poll results.
For their part, most Arab nations have reacted cautiously to Netanyahu's election. While Jordan's King Hussein tried to allay fears that the peace process was in jeopardy, Syrian media reports denounced Israelis for "preferring war to peace" and urged Washington to ensure that Israel complied with the peace accord.
Netanyahu, in turn, has sought talks with both King Hussein and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, ostensibly to reassure them about the peace process. But another prominent Likud leader and cabinet minister aspirant, Moshe Katsav, hinted that the redeployment of troops from the Hebron might be held up despit Authority to check terrorism.
Rhetoric notwithstanding, Netanyahu's real intentions will become clear only after he appoints his defence minister. The defe-nce portfolio in Israel is believed to be the key to determining the policy of any government. If Netanyahu appoints a hardli-ner like Sharon or Benny Begin, former premier Menachem Begin's son, it will be clear that he plans to take a tough policy stance. But if he names someone like retired army general Yitzhak Mordechai, a pragmatist without any ideological linkage to the Greater Land of Israel concept, this could be a sign that Netanyahu is inclined towards moderation, and that the peace process will continue.
The problem in reading his mind is that not much is known about him though his family history provides a clue. His father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu, was close toe the agreement with the Palestinians, because the Likud was 'dissatisfied' with the steps taken by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian the late premier Menachem Begin and was the editor of the newspaper of the Herut Party, the Likud's predecessor. Benjamin was born in Tel Aviv in 1949. In 1956, the family moved to Philadephia, where Netanyahu was a university lecturer. Benjamin completed high school there before returning to Israel and enrolling as an army commando (he received a citation for excellence while his brother died in an operation to free the hostages at Uganda's Entebbe Airport). He later returned to the US and joined a business consultancy firm.
Were it not for the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he pserhaps might have settled permanently in the US. But though the war brought him back to Israel, he immediately went on to represent a large Israeli furniture company in the US. It was only with the Likud's rise to power in the early '80s that he accepted an offer to serve as the political affairs minister at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and eventually as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, a post which brought him into the Israeli political mainstream. In 1988, Netanyahu settled for good in Israel, and progressed meteorically in the Likud Party. And the rest, as they say, is history.