Mideast realities likely to restrict implementation of radical politics

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Consensus means that everyone says collectively what no one believes individually. It would therefore be prudent to avoid predicting Israel's policies by reference to election rhetoric alone.

The 1996 election was proclaimed throughout the world as the most crucial in Israel's history. But that judgment was based on the assumption that Israel faces a new diversity of options, ranging from accelerated fulfillment of the Rabin-Peres 1993 peace process to the renewal of Israeli militancy through denunciation of the Oslo agreements and a repudiation of the PLO-Israeli accords.

I watched the elections carefully, and my own impressions lead me to conclude that Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu's options are in fact more restricted than those of any of his predecessors.

First, he is constrained by the contractual principle that works for continuity. Second, he faces the reality that the peace process has always been more popular in Israel than any alternative policy.

A third factor is that the new prime minister's style and pragmatic demeanor are sharply discordant with the rigorous dogmatism and territorial passions of his Orthodox constituents.

Fourth, the idea of withdrawing from the sliver of Hebron in which a few hundred Jewish zealots live in an abrasive relationship with over 120,000 passionate Muslims is specifically required by the Oslo agreement. But Netanyahu's enthusiasm for facing the Hebron issue seems to lie between the cold and tepid water taps.

Finally, Netanyahu is not insensitive to the joys of international summitry. There is no reason why he should be. No wonder he seems reluctant to begin his stewardship by alienating the United States, the European Union and the North African and Gulf Arab states, which Shimon Peres adroitly added to the list of candidates for his "New Middle East."

A week after the "crucial" election, Israeli opinion is still rooted nostalgically in the Oslo experience.

The election was theoretically fought on the issue of "individual security," but if Likud leaders knew of a prescription for preventing young Muslim fanatics from exploding themselves along with innocent travelers on buses, they would have patriotically shared their secret with Yitzhak Rabin and Peres long ago.

Might it be that no such panacea exists?

To add to the complicated story, Netanyahu had a dream in which Hafez Assad was heard saying: "This is the deal: We give you a peace treaty and you keep the whole of the Golan." The dream now faces its testing ground.

In the deplorable artillery adventure in Lebanon that probably sealed the doom of Peres' election campaign, Netanyahu called for more and more shelling, not for less and less.

By the time these lines see the public light, the New Likud may have taken measures in greater harmony with the hard-fisted traditions of Ariel Sharon and Rafael Eitan, but their demeanor at this writing finds them in a mood of low expectation. They seem to be a luxury the Netanyahu administration cannot afford.

The popular sport of Israeli newspapermen at this moment is speculation about the date of Netanyahu's inevitable handshake with Yasser Arafat. When this happens, Rabin, like the restless ghost in "Hamlet," will allow his spirit to rest and his face to break into something that could look like an ironic smile.

The hard truth is that the recent past does not run away; the new slate is not entirely free of the old inscriptions.

This truth was expounded on Israeli TV this week by Avraham Shohat, Israel's Pickwickian finance minister. (It is a pity that more Americans never encountered his jovial pungency.)

In clearing his papers prematurely from his desk in the Finance Ministry, Shohat reflected on the legacy that Rabin and Peres are bequeathing to their successors.

The heritage includes a bustling economy with Pacific Rim potential, a GNP rating that would delight any major industrial power and a wider breach than Israel has ever known in the Great Wall of Arab and Muslim hostility. There is also a series of commercial commitments that may still carry the area to an unexpected renewal of its vitality.

Oslo is a much more stubborn reality than anything yet put in its place. Netanyahu's problem is that the much-maligned peace process was a success story.

There is a double moral in this new reality. First: There is more paradox than logic in history. Second: Every generation stands tall on the shoulders of its predecessors, and boasts loudly of its own farsightedness.