Clear Ideological Focus Marks Olmert

Ehud Olmert, who took over as acting Israeli prime minister following Ariel Sharon’s debilitating stroke, is a career politician with a clear ideological focus. If he becomes prime minister in his own right, Olmert can be expected to carry on peacemaking efforts with the Palestinians where Sharon left off.

Olmert was one of the chief architects of Sharon’s main foreign policy achievement — last summer’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. When Sharon broke away last November from his ruling Likud Party to form a new centrist party, Kadima, Olmert was one of the first to follow him.

In late 2003, it was Olmert who first outlined Sharon’s new thinking on the Palestinian issue: In a string of interviews in Israeli media, Olmert argued that Israel could not allow itself to remain stuck forever occupying territory where Palestinians lived, which could undercut the Jewish and democratic nature of the state.

If agreements with the Palestinians proved impossible, Olmert said, Israel would have to set its borders on its own. It soon became clear that Olmert was floating the ideas as trial balloons for Sharon, but the same thinking probably would inform his decision making as prime minister.

Olmert, 60, has been in politics all his adult life. Supporters see him as an experienced and savvy politician with proven leadership qualities; opponents denigrate him as an opportunistic wheeler-dealer.

Olmert first was elected to the Knesset in 1973 at age 28. At 43, he was minister without portfolio responsible for Israeli Arab Affairs. At 45, he was health minister, and at 48, he became mayor of Jerusalem, a post he held for 10 years before returning to politics on the national stage.

Olmert was born in Israel into a politically active right-wing family associated with the Herut movement, but he showed his intellectual independence by joining Shmuel Tamir’s Free Center, a breakaway faction from Herut, in the mid-1960s.

The formation of the Likud in 1973 brought the Free Center, Herut and three other parties together, and in 1977, Olmert played an active role in Menachem Begin’s successful bid for prime minister.

As a young Knesset member, the highly articulate Olmert gained attention for his anti-corruption efforts. He also was part of a group of Likud rebels who voted against Begin’s 1978 Camp David peace agreement with Egypt.

Since then, Olmert’s views on the territorial question have changed dramatically. In a recent newspaper interview, he declared that “I am sorry Begin is not alive for me to be able to publicly recognize his wisdom and my mistake. He was right, and I was wrong. Thank God we pulled out of Sinai.”

Olmert is trained as a lawyer, with degrees in philosophy and psychology. He exercises frequently, speaks excellent English and can be extremely charming. However, he can also can be very aggressive in response to media questioning.

His wife, Aliza, a playwright and artist, voices views on the left of the Israeli political spectrum. They have five children. Olmert often jokes that, as the only right-winger, he’s often a minority within the family.

In 1993, running on a right-wing ticket, Olmert defeated the legendary Teddy Kollek for mayor of Jerusalem. He made a political pact with the fervently Orthodox to cement his power in the city, alienating many left-wing and centrist secular voters.

In 1996, when the Likud regained power under Benjamin Netanyahu, Olmert was not invited to take part in the government. He and Netanyahu have remained bitter rivals ever since.

In 1999, Olmert incurred the wrath of many Likudniks when he mocked the party’s election slogan that Labor Party candidate and future prime minister Ehud Barak “would divide Jerusalem.” Olmert later was humiliated when Barak did back a division of the city.

In 1999, after Netanyahu lost the premiership to Barak and resigned as Likud chairman, Olmert challenged Sharon for the Likud Party leadership. He won about 25 percent of the vote, less than half of Sharon’s tally.

In 2003, Olmert returned to national politics as one of Sharon’s closest allies against Netanyahu. Deeply disappointed when Sharon gave the finance portfolio to Netanyahu, Olmert insisted on a deputy premiership as compensation.

Now the wheel has come full circle: He succeeded Netanyahu as finance minister last August and now, as Sharon’s deputy, is acting prime minister.

But it will not be easy for Olmert, who lacks security credentials, to fill Sharon’s shoes. A lot will depend on the extent to which his Kadima colleagues unite round him, and for now, they say they intend to do so.

Olmert is not the most popular politician in Kadima. Recent polls indicate that voters would prefer ex-Laborite Shimon Peres or Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to step up and lead the party. Still, he hopes that their support, and a few weeks in the top job, will persuade the public that he has what it takes to be prime minister full time.

Pundits note that when Golda Meir took over the national leadership from Levi Eshkol in 1969, she had only 3 percent public support but within months had become a very popular prime minister. Olmert, who starts off with higher levels of support, hopes incumbency will create the same widespread acceptance of his leadership.


U.S. Hedges Stand on Abbas Victory


It was an invitation without an R.S.V.P.

Come on over, President Bush told his newly elected Palestinian Authority counterpart — but let’s wait to set a date. The check is in the mail, I’m just not sure how much.

The decisive election Sunday of Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate favored by Israel, the United States and the international community, has been followed by a flood of “what nexts?” that are decidedly less decisive.

That leaves open crucial questions about the coming year, including the long-term viability of Abbas and his commitment to ending violence, as well as his role in assuming control in the Gaza Strip and areas of the West Bank once Israel pulls out.

Bush called Abbas on Monday to congratulate him.

“The president had a very good conversation with President-elect Abbas yesterday,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Phone calls from Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon came after Abbas extended an olive branch to Israel, saying, “We extend a hand to our neighbors. We are ready for peace, peace based on justice.”

That was just the message Bush and Sharon were waiting to hear before extending congratulations.

Bush’s invitation to Abbas was dramatic, in that it was the first to a Palestinian Authority president since the Clinton administration. Bush’s policy was to isolate Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, whom it linked to terrorism.

But it was also hedged: “I look forward to talking with him at the appropriate time,” Bush said Monday. “I look forward to welcoming him here to Washington if he chooses to come here.”

Bush’s reluctance to set a time for a call and a date for a visit suggested that the pre-election hesitancy to openly embrace Abbas had not passed with his election.

“The United States has decided not to immediately invite him, because if he comes to the United States now, he’d have to go home empty-handed,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, which promotes greater U.S. engagement in the Middle East.

That’s because the administration is looking to see what first steps Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, will take. It is also, in part, because both Bush and Sharon are in the process of switching administrations.

Bush is clearing away much of his top diplomatic staff as he heads into his second term. Sharon is consolidating a national unity government with the Labor Party and United Torah Judaism, having jettisoned his previous hard-line and secularist partners in order to win parliamentary support for his withdrawal plan.

U.S. officials have said that embracing Abbas during the Palestinian’s tenure as prime minister, without allowing him to show immediate dividends, helped scuttle his bid to wrest power away from Arafat then. A public embrace now, without showing results, could end the surge of Palestinian optimism that accompanied the elections. Palestinian officials say that Abbas needs results if he is to survive as a leader.

Diana Buttu, who has negotiated with the Israelis in the past as an official of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, cautioned that Abbas should not be seen as Arafat’s successor as the leader of the Palestinian people, but merely as leader of the Palestinian Authority.

“He is now the person responsible for a very small percentage of the West Bank” and the Gaza Strip, she said Monday in Washington, where she delivered a post-election analysis. “He is a president who is living under direct Israeli rules and conditions.”

While Abbas got an official 62 percent of the vote, she said that only 70 percent of eligible voters actually were registered, and of those, only 70 percent voted in the elections. That adds up to just a 50 percent turnout from the eligible population. This, suggested Buttu, is a sign that many Palestinians were going to wait and see with Abbas.

Turnout for last month’s first round of municipal elections in the West Bank was much higher, she said, because power had devolved to local authorities, a fact she attributed to the ravaging of the Palestinian national infrastructure through four years of the intifada and Israeli military action.

“There is a realization, an awareness that power is no longer wielded on a national level,” she said, suggesting that the terrorist Hamas group sat out the national elections but contended in the municipal elections, because the local authorities offered more immediate powers.

“Palestinians are going to be looking to Mahmoud Abbas to change their conditions,” she said. “If Israel squanders this opportunity, my fear is that it’s going to get even uglier.”

Israelis pointed out that it is not only Israel that has an opportunity to seize — the Palestinians also have much to do.

“There’s not going to be any disengagement with 10 missiles slamming into Israel every day,” said an Israeli official, referring to the rockets being fired against Israeli targets in Gaza.

For his part, Bush made clear he had expectations of both sides.

“It’s going to be very important for Israel to fulfill its obligation on the withdrawal from the territories that they have pledged to withdraw from,” he said Monday.

“It is essential,” he continued, “that Israel keep a vision of two states, living side by side in peace, and that as the Palestinians begin to develop the institutions of a state; that the Israeli government support the development of those institutions and recognize that it is essential that there be a viable economy, that there be a viable health-care system, that people be — that people be allowed to start building a society that meets their hopes and needs.”

Bush also emphasized his expectation that “the Palestinian leadership consolidate security forces, so that they can fight off those few who still have the desire to destroy Israel as a part of their philosophy.”

As for the U.S. role, the White House appeared once again to be adopting a wait-and-see posture. U.S. officials said funding for the Palestinians would be forthcoming — but how much depends on how events unfold.

“We’re going to take a look at what action we might take, as well as what funding,” National Security Council spokesman Shawn McCormack told CNN.

Bush suggested that more answers would be forthcoming at a conference in London next month, which will be attended by Condoleezza Rice, his designated secretary of state. He said he looked forward to helping the conference in London, aimed at helping the Palestinians develop their institutions, and to helping “Abu Mazen’s vision of a peaceful, active, vibrant state to become reality.”


U.S. Jews Laud Withdrawal Vote

American Jewish organizations rushed Tuesday afternoon to express support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan.

Sharon’s initiative was “not an easy decision, but we fully share the Israeli government’s view that it was the right decision to safeguard the future of the State of Israel,” the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, said in a statement.

“We salute Prime Minister Sharon’s bold initiative and pledge our public support for the implementation of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza,” leaders of the Anti-Defamation League said.

In a more tepid statement, the chairman and executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations expressed “support for the Knesset vote approving the Gaza disengagement plan,” noting that “further votes will be necessary for various stages of implementation.”

“We hope that all parties will be able to come together to work on implementation and to minimize divisiveness,” James Tisch and Malcolm Hoenlein said.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said that Tuesday’s developments were tough.

“This policy not only rewards and appeases terrorists, but the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza will make it much easier for terrorists to set up bomb factories and bring weapons into Gaza, including even more dangerous and accurate missiles that will threaten major cities within Israel,” Klein said.

Nearly all the Jewish groups issuing statements noted the impending anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, urging Israeli leaders to summon courage for peace with the Palestinians — and urging opponents to eschew violence.

“As we approach the ninth anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, we are again reminded of the urgent need for civility. We join with the vast majority of Israelis in urging respect for the lawful decisions of Israel’s elected leaders,” Harris said.

Applauding Israel for reaching a “historic milestone on its decades-long quest for peace and security,” the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) also recalled Rabin’s memory.

In commemorating Rabin, the group said that “today’s vote motivates us even more to do all we can to support his unfulfilled quest for two states living side-by-side in peace and security,” JCPA Chair Marie Abrams said.

Americans for Peace Now took its kudos a step further, saying the Knesset move was precedent setting.

“Approval of this disengagement plan sets an important precedent for the evacuation of other settlements in the years ahead,” President and CEO Debra DeLee said. — Rachel Pomerance, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Condi vs. Holbrooke on Foreign Policy

Just days before the U.S. elections, the presidential candidates are sending the same broad messages about their approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the greater Middle East, but they differ sharply on the details.

In exclusive interviews with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, and Richard Holbrooke, a senior foreign policy adviser to Sen. John Kerry, laid out their respective candidate’s vision for the Middle East over the next four years.

A second term of the Bush administration would hope to use Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as the start of new progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

“I think what you will see is, if Prime Minister Sharon is successful in moving forward on his disengagement plan, that that could provide a new impetus for the Palestinians to move toward reform, as they get ready to take responsibilities in the Gaza, and it could provide an impetus then for a beginning of negotiations between the parties,” Rice said in a telephone interview from her White House office on Tuesday.

A Kerry White House would look to appoint an envoy to the region, not to force Israel to make concessions, but to pressure Arab governments to stop sponsoring terror, Holbrooke said in a separate interview.

“You go to Riyadh and tell these guys to stop supporting the worst anti-Israeli elements and the worst anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist literature around the world,” said Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, adding that such an envoy could help reduce Israel’s isolation in the world.

Both advisers said their respective candidate’s would continue the policy of not talking to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and supported Israel’s plans to disengage from the Gaza Strip and to erect a security barrier in the West Bank.

In the minds of the campaigns, the battle for Jewish votes in this election has focused squarely on which candidate will do more to protect Israel and fight the war on terrorism.

The significance of the Jewish vote is what brought both Holbrooke and Rice to Florida this week to address a national gathering of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Both advisers are well-respected in the Jewish community and could, depending on who wins next week’s election, play leading roles in shaping U.S. foreign policy over the next four years. The missions for the two advisers in talking to the pro-Israel community are very different.

Rice and the Bush campaign are working to boost the number of Jews, traditionally a Democratic voting bloc, who will back Bush’s re-election because they like his record on Israel.

Holbrooke and the Democrats, however, are working to maintain the voting bloc and alleviate concerns Jewish voters may have about Kerry’s foreign policy, and specifically the envoy idea.

“If we have an envoy, if we have an effort in the region, it is not at Israel’s expense,” Holbrooke told the AIPAC gathering Sunday. “It is not unilateral concessions with no one to negotiate.”

Some Jewish activists say they think an envoy would pressure Israel to make concessions, and that Kerry’s support for a multilateral approach to foreign affairs would put more stock in the anti-Israel views of European and Arab states. They also fear Kerry could appoint someone they see as anti-Israel, like former President Jimmy Carter and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, both of whom Kerry mentioned in a speech earlier this year as possible candidates as envoy, but the idea has long since dismissed.

Instead, Holbrooke said, an envoy could work in the region to press neighboring states to stop terrorism, singling out Saudi Arabia.

“This is not just about the Palestinian Authority,” he told JTA after the speech, saying the envoy would have immense difficulty dealing with any Palestinian leader, because Arafat would stifle the process.

Rice seemed to mock the envoy idea, suggesting that such a person would “wander around” the region, telling Arab countries things they already hear.

“It may well be that at some point in time, someone else can help in this process, an envoy, I wouldn’t rule it out,” Rice said. “But it’s not the answer, just sending somebody out there to wander around the Arab states and tell them they need to stop incitement. Everyone is telling them they need to stop incitement.”

While Jews across the political spectrum have praised Bush for isolating Arafat and supporting Ariel Sharon’s plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip (see page 24) and some West Bank settlements, critics say his administration has not been engaged in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The critics say the White House should more actively push for Palestinian reforms and push both parties to move the process forward.

Rice responded to the criticism, saying: “We continue to be engaged with our Middle East partners, but we have really believed since the spring that the best chance for strong re-engagement will be when the Israeli disengagement plan goes forward.”

In both her address to AIPAC on Monday and in the interview, Rice said the Bush administration would rely heavily on support from states that still talk with Arafat, looking to them to help reform the Palestinian government and pressure Arafat to step aside.

“We can simply not afford to have a situation in which new Palestinian leadership does not emerge,” she said in the interview. “I believe that the international community increasingly understands that.”

She said Bush would continue to work from his vision outlined on June 24, 2002 — which focused on reforming the Palestinian Authority, isolating Arafat and establishing a Palestinian state by 2005 — and was gratified by signals from the Sharon government that he does not see the Gaza withdrawal as an end to the peace process.

“The United States has also been very concerned and very gratified that the Israelis have made clear that it is not Gaza only, that it is Gaza first with four settlements in the West Bank being a part of the initial parts of this to demonstrate that there is a link between Gaza and the West Bank,” she said in the interview.

Cognizant of strong support for Bush’s Middle East policies among AIPAC loyalists, Holbrooke did not challenge the Republican’s Middle East credentials but tried to place Kerry on the same tier, emphasizing that both candidates support Israel’s latest strategy.

“I don’t want us to have a contest over who is more or less pro-Israel, because I don’t think that’s in the national interest in a presidential campaign, when both men are supportive of Israel,” Holbrooke said in the interview.

However, he added, Kerry is better because he had never “played footsie with the Saudis.” He also reiterated Kerry’s criticisms of Bush’s policy in Iraq, and he said that he believed little progress could be made on the Israeli-Palestinian track until the situation in Iraq is stabilized.

Responding to this week’s news that explosives from Iraq may have gone missing in Iraq, Rice defended U.S. action in the region and suggested the United States is on the course to making the Jewish state safer.

“I think you have to ask yourself — was Israel, or for that matter, the United States, safe prior to the invasion of Iraq?” she said. “I think what you had in the Middle East was a false sense of stability, where a tyrannical and dangerous regime like Saddam Hussein was actually not being contained.”

On Iran, Rice credited the president with putting Iran on the international agenda and said the nuclear threat posed by Iran could be handled diplomatically. She told the AIPAC gathering that the world needed to get tough and isolate Iran if it continues its nuclear weapons program, and that the matter would likely be handled in the United Nations Security Council.

“I think we can make diplomacy work here,” she said.

But Holbrooke disagreed. Referring to European efforts to negotiate with Iran on the issue, he said: “Continuing the policy of letting the French, German and British represent an international coalition in Tehran will not succeed. Europe will never be an effective diplomatic tool without the United States taking the lead.”

Rice also said that the Bush administration is continuing to have “pretty intense conversations” with Syria about its support for terrorist groups that target Israel.

“The Syrians, I would say, don’t seem to have gotten the message consistently,” she said. “But I’m confident that if we stay on course and continue to pursue that message, they, too, will understand there isn’t another course for them.”

Both advisers could be central in shaping future foreign policy.

Holbrooke is considered a front-runner for secretary of state in a Kerry administration. And if he doesn’t get that post, he is talked about as a possible Middle East envoy.

While he would not speculate in the interview on possible positions if Kerry wins, he did seek to shore up his credentials. He said he had concerns about dealing with Arafat when he was at the United Nations, and he stressed he was not part of the group associated with the failed Oslo peace plan.

“Oslo was an unsuccessful effort,” he said. “You can’t go back to that situation.”

Rice also would not speculate about the next four years if her boss is re-elected but suggested her desire may not be to continue to serve the administration.

“I am an academic at heart, and there’s a part of me that wants to go back to academic life,” she said. “But I have not made a decision at this time.”

Kerry Offers Hope for Israel

Many American Jews and Israeli Americans seem impressed by George W. Bush’s putative support for Israel. As an Israeli, I implore responsible

Jewish voters who care about Israel: Look at his record over his rhetoric, and you’ll see the dangers of his leadership for this country.

Luckily, Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) record offers hope for Israel.

I made aliyah from New York and have lived in Israel for nine years, through two intifadas and at least two Iraq scares, masks and all. But I have never been more frightened for Israel’s safety, than under President Bush. I have never despaired more of advancing peace, as during Bush’s term.

It is difficult to recall a president who was less engaged in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether we liked or disliked Bush senior. and Secretary of State James Baker’s disciplinarian approach, they were involved. Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, President Clinton was passionately committed.

During the worst four years in Israel’s history, George W. Bush has done a resounding nothing.

In his first National Security Council meeting, he decided to disengage from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and his disinterest shows: The “road map” was presented and then forgotten. Bush opposed Israel’s security fence throughout 2003, threatening Israel’s loan guarantees, and then suddenly supported it — coincidentally at the start of the election year.

The same goes for unilateral separation. Prior to 2004, Bush refused to call Arafat a terrorist and insisted he remain the negotiating partner; a former political officer at the Israeli Embassy in Washington noted ruefully that Bush is the reason Arafat is still around.

Some hailed the president’s “promises” to Ariel Sharon in April as a victory — yet Bush all but reneged, including regarding the Palestinian right of return, two weeks later. Just last month at the U.N. General Assembly, Bush called for a settlement freeze. Which is the real Bush policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

With the second intifada, many here felt that only strong American involvement would help reach a negotiated end to the misery. As president, George W. Bush hasn’t even visited Israel. His policy is an irrelevant mess of contradictions that leaves Israel in despair.

But Bush’s actions in Iraq leave the country in danger. Suicide bombings and now beheadings are tearing Iraq and other countries apart — a horror we hoped no one else would ever know. Iraq is out of control, Bin Laden is free and Al Qaeda is growing. That makes Israel, and being Israeli, more dangerous.

His lack of action in Iran is beyond dangerous — it is outrageous. America has known about secret nuclear facilities for more than two years, and now everyone knows about Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear weapons. But Iraq has cost vital American credibility in Europe and the Arab world, and America is far weaker in facing the escalating threat. Iran is a hornet’s nest of hatred, by some accounts it is the new Afghanistan, putting Israel directly in the line of fire.

Isolation and resentment of America spills over onto Israel. Conspiracy theories affect business, social and cultural relations. When Mikos Theodorakis, the legendary Greek composer, railed on the Israeli-American control over the world, he sounded only partly anti-Semitic. In part, he was just expressing beliefs that are tragically prevalent in once-benign neighboring countries.

A generation of moderate Muslims is turning radical, learning to hate America — and with it, Israel — because of the mangled Iraq war effort. Who is the closer target for their rage, America or Israel? Al Qaeda is threatening Israelis around the world, and the Mombasa incident, the terrorist attack at a Kenya hotel frequented by Israelis, shows its capabilities.

In Israel, the world’s resentment, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Islamic extremism are bad enough. Under Bush, these problems have gotten worse and he shows little commitment to addressing them. I’m not even sure he understands them.

Kerry understands. He has supported Israel in every vote for 20 years; that’s way before the electoral campaign started. Kerry understood how to fight terrorism long before Bush was ignoring intelligence reports on imminent attacks in the United States.

While Bush senior was selling missiles to Saudi Arabia (How is that good for Israel?), Kerry was one of the first to write a Senate report investigating Saudi businesses for funding terrorist organizations. Bush senior met members of the Bin Laden family, and the figures incriminated in Kerry’s 1992 report helped fund Bush’s electoral campaign.

Kerry has a 12-year, highly analytical approach targeting the sources of terrorism. Bush has a four-year record of being passive on intelligence, coddling Saudis, making the wrong connection between Iraq, weapons of mass destruction and Sept. 11, and talking tough while Iran and North Korea fester.

Despite his rhetoric, the administration has cut State Department counterterrorism programs by an average of 20 percent every year since Sept. 11. Kerry is unburdened by the Republicans’ chronic dual loyalty to Arab oil barons alongside America’s security, which led them to defeat a bill banning oil companies from doing business with terrorist states — this past June.

When the election dust settles, Bush will no longer need to buy Jewish votes — so there is no guarantee that actions he eventually does take would favor Israel. And after four years of Bush’s leadership, Israel is a more dangerous place, a more hated place and a more hopeless place.

How can we reject a candidate who understands, with unwavering support, what Israel needs?

Courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Dahlia Scheindlin is an international political consultant and public opinion analyst based in Tel Aviv.

‘Dreamers’ Still Hold Hope for Peace

Sometimes, they say, hope shines brightest in the darkest hours. Palestinians and Israelis have never been further apart in the past decade, with nearly 3,000 people killed in the two years of the Palestinian intifada.

Yet "the dreamers," as some call them, are still busy preparing peace plans, as if all that is needed to bring peace to the Holy Land are a few intelligent position papers. Many of the peace plans are the work of academics and would-be politicians.

Lacking the authority to implement their plans, the authors are free to combine fantasy with wishful thinking. However, among the "dreamers" are some with sound political records, and — perhaps more importantly — they represent Palestinian-Israeli collaboration.

While the plans may have little chance of being implemented in the near future, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has many examples where once-radical ideas slowly moved from the margins to the mainstream, finally becoming policy. Even the Oslo accords, which radically reshaped relations between the two parties and held out the prospect of peace, began in talks led by Israeli academics before the Israeli leadership offered its sponsorship.

Top on the list of "dreams" right now are the joint peace plans of Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, on the one hand, and Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh on the other. Beilin, the architect of the Oslo accords and a former justice minister, recently quit the Labor Party and joined Meretz. Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Authority minister of culture and information, is considered among the more moderate Palestinian figures.

Ayalon is a decorated commando, former commander of both the navy and the Shin Bet general security service and an outspoken dove. Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, holds the Palestinian Liberation Organizatio’s Jerusalem portfolio and is a longtime advocate of peace with Israel.

All four are respected figures, yet all represent a minority in their communities, without the power to initiate real change.

It’s not always easy to find the differences between the plans. Both call for many of the same principles: a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian renunciation of the right of return and of terrorism, an end to Israeli control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to Beilin, the main difference between the two documents is that the Ayalon-Nusseibeh blueprint serves as a declaration of principles, whereas the Beilin-Abed Rabbo paper goes into details, trying to continue negotiations that broke off in Taba nearly two years ago. Beilin and Abed Rabbo began working on their agreement shortly after the Taba talks ended.

"A few days after Taba, I told Yossi that had we had a little more time, we could have reached a final and absolute settlement," Abed Rabbo said. "Even today, I believe that never before in the history of the two peoples were they so close to an agreement."

Beilin and Abed Rabbo say they are again close to reaching an agreement — but they no longer have the political influence to carry it out.

Both teams are still working on their papers, and want to publicize them after Israel’s Jan. 28 election. Beilin is convinced that Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna would support his plan if he didn’t feel obligated to take Labor toward the center to attract undecided voters. Both teams have refrained from officially publishing their papers, fearing that publication would cause more harm than benefit.

Though Labor recently chose a Knesset list that is more centrist than Mitzna, there are some indications that the left still maintains strong influence within the party. For example, the party’s election platform for the first time will refer to Jerusalem just as "Israel’s capital, including its Jewish neighborhoods." Gone is the traditional reference to Jerusalem as "whole and united," implying that Labor would be willing to relinquish Arab parts of the city.

Even former party chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said that control over the "holy basin" — the holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City — would be negotiated among representatives of the three major religions, a far cry from the official Likud policy that no concessions will be made on Jerusalem.

Similarly, Palestinian moderates have published advertisements in the East Jerusalem media calling on the Palestinians to support the Israeli peace camp, specifically mentioning Mitzna and Ayalon. The ads are signed by The Popular Campaign for Peace and Democracy-Palestine, apparently a front organization for Nusseibeh’s supporters.

The ads openly call for Palestinian intervention in the elections on Mitzna’s behalf. "Mitzna is committed to the solution proposed by Ami Ayalon," one ad read. "Let us help him to implement its clauses." "Supporting the Ayalon document means evacuation of the settlements," another ad read.

The ads quote parts of the Ayalon-Nusseibeh document. For the first time, they say, the document includes "recognition of the Palestinian right of return," but specifies that Palestinian refugees will be able to return only to a future Palestinian state, not to Israel.

Previous, unofficial versions of the document had referred only to "recognition of the suffering and plight of the Palestinian refugees." The Beilin-Abed Rabbo draft refers to "a symbolic solution of the refugee problem," without specifically mentioning that the Palestinians give up the "right of return."

In any case, Abed Rabbo said, a worldwide plebiscite among Palestinian refugees will have to be held for them to endorse such a solution. For its part, Israel would give up control of the Temple Mount under the Beilin-Abed Rabbo plan, though it doesn’t say so explicitly.

While such proposals may seem far-fetched given the current level of violence and terrorism, most Israelis and Palestinians believe their leaders one day will return to the bargaining table — and they may just be looking for some fresh ideas to revive the peace process.

Mistrust in the Mideast

The wheels are spinning beneath the battered chassis of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but the brakes are being applied by that perennial opponent of Mideast progress: mistrust.

As Israeli and Palestinian officials try to hammer out a plan to test Palestinian security guarantees, voices on each side accuse the other of tricks.

Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s “Gaza First” plan proposes a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank to test the Palestinian Authority’s willingness and ability to crack down on terror against Israel.

Palestinian Authority Interior Minister Abdel Razak Yehiyeh suggested Bethlehem as the “pilot” cease-fire city in the West Bank. If successful, the plan would be extended to other West Bank areas.

The Palestinian Authority approved the Ben-Eliezer proposal in principle. But leaders of the dozen or so Palestinian paramilitary organizations were highly critical of the decision, seeing it as a trap to legitimize Israeli occupation of Palestinian cities.

Some even suggested that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was buying into the proposal in a desperate attempt to regain his “relevance” on the international stage.

Israel was equally emphatic in its suspicion of Palestinian motives. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting that Palestinian Authority approval of the “Gaza First” idea was “simply a ruse to please the Americans” while a Palestinian delegation was talking with Bush administration officials in Washington.

The very name of the “Gaza First” plan — which recalls the “Gaza and Jericho First” plan that in 1994 initiated Palestinian Authority rule under the Oslo accords — symbolizes the extent to which the 2-year-old intifada has rolled back the gains of years of peacemaking and trust-building.

Israelis were equally skeptical of reports that Palestinian factions were once again on the verge of pledging not to attack Israeli civilians, at least inside Israel proper.

Palestinian officials had claimed they were about to issue a cease-fire in July until Israel assassinated Salah Shehada, the head of Hamas’ military wing in the Gaza Strip, killing some 15 civilians in the process.

Palestinians staged several spectacular terrorist attacks, ostensibly in revenge for Shehada’s death. But then they again considered the possibility of declaring a cease-fire — albeit one that would sanction attacks on Israelis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israelis dismissed the talk as a public relations exercise or as diplomatic cover that would allow Palestinian fighters to regroup and prepare for future attacks.

They also feared a repetition of Israel’s experience in Lebanon, where the two sides agreed on a moratorium on attacking civilians. In practice, that allowed Hezbollah fighters to shelter behind Lebanese civilians while attacking Israeli soldiers.

All those questions appeared to become moot early this week, however, as the Palestinian factions dropped the cease-fire initiative and instead called for continued attacks.

“We stress the legitimacy of our resistance against [the Israeli] aggression and the occupation, and the Israeli settlements,” the groups said in a draft statement. The statement affirms both violence and “political work” as legitimate tools toward the Palestinians’ goals.

Beyond the bluster, however, some Israelis detected signs that the intifada’s physical, economic and diplomatic toll was exhausting the Palestinians.

The fact that Arafat’s Fatah movement was reaching out to other groups to consider even a partial cease-fire shows a recognition that the war against Israel has failed, and that Palestinians are searching for a way out, some Israeli analysts said.

For several weeks now, the Supreme Intifada Monitoring Committee, an umbrella group of all Palestinian factions, has been working on a covenant meant to produce a joint, binding definition of Palestinian goals and the means to achieve them. It also grapples with the need for reform of P.A. institutions.

Palestinian spokesmen insist the covenant is not meant as a concession either to Israel or America, where President Bush, in late June, demanded comprehensive P.A. reforms, including Arafat’s replacement, as a condition for Palestinian statehood.

The covenant was to have been signed in mid-August, but the signing ceremony was deferred when Hamas officials asked for more time to consider their position. Earlier, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabah, met Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in Gaza to advance agreement on the covenant.

Particularly galling to Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist, is the document’s call for a Palestinian state only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders say that even if they sign the document, they will reserve the right to continue advocating a Palestinian state not next to Israel, but in place of it.

Israelis, meanwhile, asked how much of this development constituted genuine change on which new peace agreements could be built? To what extent was it tactical maneuvering to enable battered terrorist groups — which the Palestinian Authority is obligated to disband rather than co-opt — to regroup and fight another day? How much of it was simply a way for the discredited Arafat to hang on to power?

Part of the Israeli mistrust stems from the fact that the covenant would establish a joint Palestinian decision-making body that includes all Palestinian factions, with Arafat at its head. This could simply be another way for Arafat to retain power — and as long as he does, Israelis argue, nothing positive will happen.

To help overcome the mutual mistrust and create conditions for a cease-fire, the Americans are pushing ahead with plans to reform the Palestinian security services. After spending several weeks in the region, a CIA team recently made detailed recommendations for changes in the structure, assignment, operation, recruitment and training of the Palestinian security services, which would be placed under a unified command.

The Americans also will soon send an envoy to the region to assess reforms in Palestinian government and economic procedures.

But in their dealings with the Palestinians, the Americans, and the Israelis for that matter, face an acute dilemma: In order to promote the reform program they need to talk to Palestinians in positions of authority, but often those Palestinians are close confidants of Arafat, the man the reforms are supposed to sideline.

In early August talks in Washington, for example, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said openly that he was there representing Arafat. It is, therefore, by no means clear whether the reforms and the strong undercurrent of Palestinian criticism of the leadership are pushing Arafat out, or whether Arafat is controlling the reforms and the protesters to solidify his grip on power.

If it is the former, the cease-fire efforts may have a chance; if the latter, Israeli intelligence sources contend, the terror will not stop for any length of time.

Still, even a partial and largely tactical Palestinian cease-fire will put tremendous strains on Israel’s already fragile national unity government.

On Sunday, Sharon made it clear that he is considering going to early elections over the budget. A cease-fire, which the National Religious Party on the right will almost certainly reject as a trap, could set off a process of disintegration of the Likud-led coalition.

And on the left, Labor leaders already are predicting a January election, in which relations with the Palestinians will be a key issue.

Your Letters

Yehuda Chaim

The U.S. State Department has no position on rock-throwing as violence. Tell that to Batsheva and Benny Shoham, whose infant son, Yehuda Chaim, was buried this week, after sustaining a crushing head injury by a terrorist’s rock. His tiny body was wrapped in a tallit, to Jews a garment worn in prayer, in celebration of joys that he and his family will not know.

Why? Because Yehuda Chaim (z”l) represented the Jew living in his homeland — an anathema to an enemy whose religious leaders command them to kill as many Jews as possible. One of his five surviving great-grandparents has a number burned into her flesh, a remembrance of life in another country that said that she did not belong there either. Batsheva’s twin brother is married to Leah Boim, whose 17-year-old brother, David, was killed by terror a few years ago.

Yehuda Chaim’s grieving great-grandparents, Dr. Morris and Sylvia Harow of Karnei Shomron, formerly of Beverly Hills, are also my machatonim.

Chana Givon, Los Angeles

Editor’s Note: Local family members have set up a fund to buy an ambulance for Israel in memory of Yehuda Chaim Shoham. Checks made out to Magen David Adom can be sent to: Shoham Ambulance Fund, c/o Shaarey Zedek Congregation, 12800 Chandler Blvd., Valley Village, CA 91607.

Time for Action

In the current series of provocations and retaliations, the Palestinians are still winning the propaganda battle for the sympathy and support of the world. They are aided and abetted by a more subtle enemy: the so-called even-handed news media in print and on television.

I believe time has come for us to take these dangerous, one-sided newsmakers to task in the only way we can and the only language they understand. It is time for all Jews to call the Los Angeles Times and other publications and threaten to cancel their subscriptions immediately and tell why if asked. It is time for Jews to consider boycotting their advertisers and their clients who tolerate the defamation of Israel and to stop buying products which help subsidize the lies.

It is time to picket the news studios and headquarters which churn out lopsided news, making Israel out as the villain if she simply refuses to fold her tents and silently steal away from the world scene.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman, Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Am

No one can argue that Israel is in a bad state, but what are we, as Americans, doing to help out? Sure, President Bush sent CIA Director George Tenet to try to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. But what have we done?

A little over one month ago, I got back from a two-week trip to Israel that was subsidized by Birthright Israel. While there, I traveled around with 25 chaverim (friends) that I will have for the rest of my life. What we experienced there has most definitely changed my life.

If I could, I would go back to Israel right now to help support my chaverim who are still there. I would go back to support the country and show that we’re not afraid of the Palestinians.

When my aunt asked me the other day, however, if she should allow her 15-year-old son to go to Israel with Camp Ramah for six weeks, I didn’t have an answer for her then and still don’t. As it stands today, he will be leaving in a little less than one month. I support him 100 percent for going in such trying times. I support every group who decides to still go (Ramah, USY, etc.). Do what you can while you’re there to protect yourself, your country and all of our chaverim.

Daryn Friedman, Los Angeles

Teresa Strasser

Some of your readers who lack the literary sophistication and insight may not recognize the true character of Teresa Strasser’s piece (“Dad Speaks Out,” June 8) which she fictionally attributes to her father. Obviously following the example of Jonathan Swift, author of “Gulliver’s Travels,” this piece is a brilliant allegorical satire on the current state of affairs in Israel.

Her father is, of course, the government of Israel. The possum is the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) in general and Yasser Arafat in particular. (If you ever look a possum in the face, you will notice the resemblance immediately.)

The possum (Arafat) seemed almost dead (although perhaps it was just playing possum) until Mr. Strasser (Israel) nursed it back to health with formula fed by a dropper (the Oslo accords and all the arming of the P.A. by Israel pursuant to its provisions).

One morning Mr. Strasser (Israel) wakes up and finds that the possum (Arafat and the P.A.) is chewing on his ear (the Al-Aqsa Intifada). Finally Mr. Strasser (Israel) comes to the inevitable conclusion that he must send the possum (Arafat and the P.A.) to a possum-rescue person a mile away (any Arab country we can get to take these guys back).

Ralph B. Kostant, Valley Village

Editor’s Note: Thank you, but sometimes a possum is just a possum.

Councilman Eric Garcetti

I read your post-election issue with interest. There were numerous articles covering the winners and losers and dissecting the Jewish vote.

In listing the “Jewish candidates,” you failed to mention the clear winner in the 13th City Council District, Eric Garcetti. Councilman Garcetti clearly meets the definition of a Jewish councilman. He is the son of former District Attorney Gil Garcetti and Suki Roth Garcetti. Eric Garcetti has attended my synagogue, Congregation Bais Naftoli, and celebrated some of the Jewish holidays with us. I am confident that he will be a great asset to our community.

Andrew Friedman, Los Angeles

New Urgency for Peacemaking

For the players in the Middle East peace process, it may seem like the two-minute warning.

A peace treaty may be Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s only chance at being reelected prime minister in next year’s elections.

The threat of a harder-line Likud leadership in Israel may convince Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat that it is urgent to strike a deal. And Bill Clinton, with less than two months remaining in his presidency, may have only one more chance to leave the diplomatic mark he has yearned for in eight years in office.

But can it be done?

Yossi Beilin, Israel’s minister of justice, said last Friday, “there is a chance” that a peace treaty could be agreed to during the last 50 days of the Clinton Administration.

“We in the Middle East, despite all the differences and all the political costs, we are able to make peace,” Beilin said in a lecture to Johns Hopkins University’s Washington-based international studies school. “The mainstream in both societies understand that if we want to live, we have to live together.”

But while the parties might be motivated to return to the table, the same problems that have prevented a peace process in the past still linger.

Beilin, who met with the U.S. national security adviser, Sandy Berger, last Friday, said the Israelis and the Palestinians solved the issue of territories during the Camp David summit this summer and were very close to an agreement on security and the settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

That leaves Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, the two hot-button issues that stalled the summit’s attempts at a new peace treaty.

The catalysts for a new round of talks are Barak’s call last week for early elections and the consensus opinion that a new peace agreement may be his only chance at retaining power.

Barak reiterated last week that he would like to reach a partial accord with the Palestinians that would encompass border issues, security and the future of the settlements but postpone a final decision on the status of Jerusalem.

“Barak is walking a tightrope between believing a deal could be good for the country and help him politically and not tempting Yasser Arafat to jack up the price and make a deal counterproductive,” said David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Palestinian officials have said that they are not interested in an interim solution.

“We will not be part of Israel’s election campaign,” Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian negotiator, said to the media Nov. 29. “The issues he spoke about — the 10 percent of the land and so forth — these issues were supposed to be implemented last November. Once there is an agreement, there must be a comprehensive one. There is nothing new in what he said.”

Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Barak might have a difficult time convincing Palestinians that his country will support any new concessions he makes, but new concessions are essential to any new agreement.

“I think the Oslo framework has taken us as close to the mountain as we are going to get,” Alterman said. “I think we will have to be more creative.”

But any new Israeli concessions will only show Barak’s desperation and political weakness, said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Report and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.

“There is a collapse of will among the Israeli leadership, and the Palestinians believe they can do a whole lot better through force,” Pipes said. “Whatever Barak puts on the table will be seen as the minimum.”

If no deal is struck and the Likud Party returns to power in Israel, chances may dwindle that negotiations can pick up where they left off at Camp David.

“Arafat believes that he can be the kingmaker in Israel, but there is a real danger that he overplays his hand, and this could blow up in Barak’s or Arafat’s face,” Makovsky said.

But although Labor and Likud employ different language when discussing concessions, Pipes said the parties’ fundamental stances are not that divergent. Additionally, any deal signed by a Likud prime minister almost automatically has the support of Labor and, therefore, a majority of people in Israel.

Arafat also might consider waiting for a new resident in the White House — one who is less involved and whom Palestinians perceive as less pro-Israel.

“Too many Arabs have whispered into Arafat’s ear that he will get a better deal if he only waits for George W. Bush,” Makovksy said.

Barak would be wise to put off elections for as long as possible, giving him time after the United States settles its presidential battle to restart the peace process, Makovsky said.

But waiting would leave Barak without Clinton, one of his key allies, and would leave that ally out of the peace process he has helped shape for eight years.

Although his term in the White House is almost over, Clinton does not have the problems that most lame-duck leaders would face. Because of the confusion over who is the next president, Clinton’s status is in fact heightened, and he has as much weight in the United States as he did before Election Day.

Two months from now, the next president, whether Bush or Vice President Al Gore, may still be required to intervene in the Middle East but is unlikely to have the same passion for the region.

“I think American presidents are drawn to the Middle East either by opportunity or necessity,” Makovsky said. “I don’t think after what Clinton has gone through another president is going to say, ‘Let’s see how I can succeed where he failed.’ ”

In a phone conversation with Barak last week, Clinton acknowledged the “narrowing window of what he can do while still in office,” National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley said, but both leaders said they still see a role for Clinton.

Beilin seemed confident that the two sides can return to the negotiating table before Clinton’s term ends. He said that although both Palestinians and Israelis may believe they deserve more concessions, they must work together to find a middle ground that makes the region livable.

“Dreams are nice, and fights are sometimes very heroic,” he said. “But the bottom line is death and guns.”

For the current leaders even to discuss getting back together to hash out an agreement, the violence in the region must be toned down, if not halted entirely, experts said.

The hope of a lasting accord is remote. Chances are better, analysts said, for a continuation of the interim status agreed to at Oslo.

And although expectations are being downplayed, American Jews are holding out hope for some agreement in the short term.

“When a room is very dark, even a small candle creates a lot of light,” said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-peace group. “It may be a long shot, but it’s the best chance we may see for a long time for a far-reaching deal.”

Walking the Tightrope

Prime Minister Ehud Barak has launched an election campaign amid violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

He hopes to conclude the campaign some time in the spring with renewed peace hopes, or, better yet, with a draft peace agreement that he can submit to the public as his election platform.

If Barak achieves a deal with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, he may yet pull back from the brink of political defeat and win the election.

If he fails — and the odds at this time have to be on his failure, given the Palestinians’ present and recent intransigence — it is hard to see Barak defeating the presumptive Likud candidate, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who currently leads Barak by 20 percentage points in public opinion polls.

After acceding Tuesday night to the Knesset majority’s obvious desire for early elections, Barak made it clear that vigorous diplomatic efforts would continue during the coming months of “lame-duck” government.

In a television interview, Barak bemoaned the Palestinian rejection of ideas put forward by Israel and the Americans at July’s Camp David summit and in subsequent diplomatic contacts.

But, he added, “it may not be over.”

Barak insisted that his diplomatic efforts would continue alongside the Israel Defense Force’s efforts to contain and reduce Palestinian violence.

Israeli military sources reported a sharp decline Tuesday in the number and intensity of violent incidents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

If this reduction was orchestrated by Arafat and was intended to help Barak out of his parliamentary predicament, it plainly came too late.

But there is no doubt that the Palestinians are closely following Israel’s intricate political drama. And they will have to recognize the fact that their behavior — on the “war” front and in the peace talks — could directly and critically influence the outcome of Israel’s domestic contest.

This confluence of domestic and diplomatic circumstances could therefore become a catalyst, driving Israel and the Palestinian Authority toward a comprehensive or partial agreement before the election deadline draws near.

On the other hand, some skeptics contend that the Palestinians are not genuinely interested in a peace agreement and would prefer to face a harder-line Likud government that would take the international blame if peace talks founder.

In any case, events between Israelis and Palestinians on the ground could prove to have a negative and even dangerous impact in the election run-up.

Barak seemed aware of this danger in his televised interview, when he vowed that the army, under his direction, would not “play to the gallery” by overreacting to violent Palestinian provocations.

Too often, Barak said, Israeli governments pandering to the public’s natural urge for revenge have ordered the army to overreact to Arab violence, only to regret the harmful effects to Israel’s international standing and overall strategic strength.

As the election campaign moves forward, Barak will come under greater temptation to strike back ever harder after Palestinian acts of terror or violence because he cannot afford to be perceived by sections of the electorate as soft and hesitant.

For its part, the Likud will be tempted to criticize Barak for softness and hesitancy, and to demand ever harsher military measures.

The election probably will take place in May, but who will the candidates be?

Barak announced on Tuesday that he would run as the Labor candidate. He appeared to share the widespread assumption that Netanyahu will be back to head the Likud, noting that he had beaten Netanyahu before and would beat him again.

But Barak’s candidacy is not a foregone conclusion, however unconventional and messy it is for a party to dislodge a sitting prime minister and party leader.

Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, for one, certainly sees himself as prime ministerial material, and Israel Radio reported Tuesday night that the speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, would also contend for the Labor leadership.

In the Likud, chairman Ariel Sharon shows little willingness to vacate the party leadership for the more popular Netanyahu. This week, political wags were joking that Sharon might prefer to serve as Barak’s No. 2 rather than as Netanyahu’s.

‘I Am a Coalition of One’

Regarding the domestic political pressures thatBinyamin Netanyahu faces in his decision-making on the peace process,the prime minister himself probably summed it up best in the “Israelat 50” interview he gave to Newsweek: “I am a coalition ofone.”

The prime minister may have to contend with theClinton administration, he may have one half-opened eye on what’sgoing on with the Palestinians, but he has little to fear on thedomestic front — either from politicians or public opinion.

Not long ago, it was believed that the right-wingfaction in the government — mainly the National Religious Party, butalso hard-liners in the Likud — was constraining Netanyahu frommaking too many concessions to the Palestinians. The prime ministerhas reportedly made this case time and again to his Americaninterlocutors.

But this argument went out the window recentlywhen Netanyahu initiated negotiations to bring the Moledet (Homeland)Party into his coalition. Moledet ‘s platform for peace with thePalestinians is to “transfer” them all out of the West Bank and Gaza.The PM can hardly complain of right-wing pressures when he is tryingto co-opt the most ultranationalist party in the Knesset.

Still, as word came from Netanyahu’s circles thathe was moving closer to accepting the American proposal for a secondIsraeli redeployment from the West Bank, forces on the right werethreatening to bring him down.

Aharon Domb, head of the settlers’ YESHA (Judea,Samaria and Gaza) Council, said, “It turns out that the primeminister is moving in the direction the Americans are leading him,and if he harms the settlements or Israel’s national interests, in myestimate, he won’t have a government.”

Transport Minister Shaul Yahalom of the NationalReligious Party warned, “If this arrangement means that any of thesettlements are isolated or threatened or limited in their ability togrow, then we will not support it.”

But what option does the right have? Twice before,right-wing leaders have given back territories to the Arabs –Menachem Begin in the Camp David Accord and Netanyahu in the HebronAgreement — and both times, they won their Knesset majoritiesdespite considerable opposition within their own ranks. Support fromthe Labor Party made up the difference. Opposition leader Ehud Barakhas pledged that if Netanyahu makes a credible peace offering to thePalestinians, Labor again will provide the “safety net” to neutralizeright-wing defectors.

And if the rightists in the Cabinet organize toscotch the second redeployment before it ever gets to the Knesset,Netanyahu can turn to the Labor Party to join him in a national unitygovernment — a national unity government for peace, which would beterrifically popular with the public and difficult for Labor to turndown even if it wanted to.

Ultimately, bringing down Netanyahu means callingnew elections, and the right wing has no candidate who approaches himin popularity. Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon is leading thecharge by the right, but he is pushing 70 and likely has too extremean image to attract the all-important electoral center. The primeminister is even less threatened by his opposition on the left.Barak’s poll ratings are going steadily down, and he now trailsNetanyahu consistently by about 7 percent. As Barak tries desperatelyto portray himself as a centrist and distance himself from Meretz,his politics have come to seem indistinguishable from Netanyahu’s.When the prime minister was refusing to withdraw from 13 percent ofthe West Bank, as the Americans and Palestinians demanded, Barak saidthe he would refuse, too.

“As an opposition leader, he’s pathetic,” sayspolitical commentator Sylvie Keshet. “He ought to listen to RubyRivlin, who is the Likud’s comedian in the Knesset. Rivlin has begunusing Labor’s own slogan: ‘With Barak we will win!'”

As for the Israeli street, it’s as quiet as aShabbat afternoon in Jerusalem. Demonstrations by Peace Now and otherleft-wing groups can hardly attract more than a couple of hundredwell-behaved people to chant — with audible lack of conviction –“Bibi go home.” Peace Now leader Mussi Raz says, lamentingly,”Unfortunately, you can only get masses of people out to protestafter the violence breaks out, not before. That’s the way it wasduring the Lebanon War, that’s the way it was during theintifada, andthat’s the way it is now.”

Last weekend’s riots by Palestinians, in which atleast five of them were shot to death by Israeli army troops, didn’tseem to faze most Israelis. The majority of the Israeli publicdoesn’t get too worked up about politics unless Israelis are beingkilled. A second major concern of theirs is that the country’srelations with the United States not be harmed.

There has been relatively little terror onNetanyahu’s watch. For all the tremors in the prime minister’srelations with the Clinton administration, they remain fundamentallystable. Since Netanyahu is giving most citizens what they want, andsince there is no viable alternative to him, the prime minister canlikely maneuver as he pleases on the second redeployment andafterward, with no serious political worries on the domesticfront.

If, however, the bloodshed crosses the border intoIsrael, and if Netanyahu finds himself frozen out by the UnitedStates — say, by an American withdrawal from the peace process –then he will no longer have such an easy life at home.