Loyal opposition needed to oppose Likud positions

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Listening to the final returns from Israel's elections, I recalled a letter to the editor I wrote when Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in 1972. "Our role now," it said, "is to be the loyal opposition."

Some of my friends disagreed with me when they saw the letter in the Los Angeles Times. It was hard then to see how we could be "loyal" to someone with whom we passionately disagreed. This week, it is also hard for those of us who have actively supported Israel's peace policies to feel positively about Benjamin Netanyahu and a Likud-led government.

But an appropriate application of the "loyal opposition" principle is certainly relevant today (although, not living in Israel, the term "opposition" doesn't precisely convey our situation).

There are times when an opposition actively resists or hinders a government's efforts. There are also times when it plays a supportive role; Menachem Begin, for example, would never have achieved peace with Egypt without the support of the Labor Party.

What the Israeli parties now in opposition will do in this regard depends largely upon Netanyahu. If he takes concrete steps that show the Oslo Accords are not dead and further progress towards reconciliation with the Palestinians is possible, he is likely to have the support of Labor politicians whose partisan concerns will simply have to take a back seat.

If he listens to his extreme right wing and allows the peace process to be sabotaged, the Israeli opposition will be widespread and vocal.

Similarly, because our voices are important in Israel and because policy decisions made in Washington, D.C., will influence the course and pace of the peace process, American Jews who have supported that process must find ways to strengthen the positions closest to ours — regardless of who takes these positions.

Netanyahu will be subjected to pressures and tugs from many directions, both in Israel and elsewhere. We must make sure he continues to hear American Jewish voices that agree with the principles that have been the basis of the peace process thus far.

Doing so is our responsibility because the election results, contrary to conventional analysis, did not give Netanyahu a mandate to end the peace process. The majority of Israelis — including many of those who voted for Netanyahu and all of those who voted for Peres — want the peace process to continue. (Tel Aviv University's Peace Index, for example, shows that support for the Oslo Accords among Israeli Jews increased from 50.5 percent to 56 percent in the last two months.)

Netanyahu campaigned on the dual platform of greater personal security and continued progress for peace, and he will feel compelled to deliver on both counts.

We can and must help. Netanyahu and our representatives in Washington should know that most American Jews believe it's in Israel's best interest for him not to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into more West Bank settlements and to find a formula that enables the Palestinian Authority to remain at the negotiating table.

On the other hand, if he gives Jewish rejectionists free reign to expand settlements and deliberately provoke Palestinians in other ways, we should show — respectfully and constructively — that most American Jews disagree. We should always make it clear that we are doing so because we are loyal to Israel.

On the day after the balloting, Benny Gaon, the president of Israel's Koor Industries, wrote in a letter to shareholders: "Benjamin Netanyahu…has articulated firmly his commitment to continue this peace process. The peace train will continue on track…and will not be derailed.

"We may have a different conductor and might proceed at a slightly slower pace, but the need to complete the journey is clear to all sides."

Gaon, a lifelong Laborite, understands that because much more than half of the Israeli public expects Netanyahu to move the peace process forward, the new prime minister will have to be pragmatic. His rejectionist campaign rhetoric may have to take the back seat.

Realistically, however, let us not forget that there were more than a few extremists, in Israel and in the United States, who helped to elect Netanyahu. They will surely do everything in their power to put an end to Israel's current course of accommodation with its neighbors. Netanyahu, the consummate political survivor, will not easily ignore them.

That is why it will be important for us to provide pragmatic and politically savvy counterpoints, so that we strengthen the forces of moderation and peace both in Israel and the United States.