JOHN BIERMAN October 31 1988



JOHN BIERMAN October 31 1988




When Jordan’s King Hussein announced three months ago that he was relinquishing responsibility for the occupied West Bank, he created a major problem for Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister and Labour Party leader. Peres’s policy for a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian problem had long centred on the so-called Jordanian-Palestinian option— and that option apparently no longer existed. As a result, in the campaign leading to Israel’s Nov. 1 general election, Peres’s principal opponent, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his right-wing Likud bloc, had powerful ammunition. There was no one to negotiate with, argued the Likud. But last Thursday night, that situation changed dramatically when Hussein—in an extraordinary display of diplomacy by television—declared that he was once again willing to play a role in the West Bank. Then, two days later, the drama heightened when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and PLO leader Yasser Arafat flew to Jordan for talks with Hussein.

The flurry of Arab diplomatic activity, clearly aimed at influencing the outcome of Israel’s Nov. 1 general election, began when Hussein, appearing on ABC TV’s influential Nightline program, endorsed Peres’s plan for an international Middle East peace conference. The king added that, if asked to do so by the Palestinian leadership, he was prepared to bring a joint Palestinian-Jordanian negotiating team to the bargaining table. “We are ready to help in any way we can,” he said. Hussein made no attempt to hide his hope that his intervention

would help Peres and his Labour Party defeat Shamir. A victory for the Likud would be “an absolute disaster” for the entire region, said the king.

In fact, it was clear that Hussein’s TV appearance had been orchestrated by Peres himself in an attempt to persuade undecided Israeli voters that his peace plan—the main plank of his election platform—had a real chance of success. But that raised the possibility of a backlash by Israelis angry that Peres had invited foreign intervention in the campaign. The risk may have been worthwhile.

“There might be some backlash,” said Ian McKinnon, president of Canada’s Decima Research organization, which has been advising Peres on campaign strategies. “But I think the

possibility of gain is much more significant.” The Hussein initiative coincided with heightened tension on Israel’s northern border. The day that the king recorded his interview with Nightline's Ted Koppel, a suicide car-bomber

of the pro-Iranian Hizbollah terrorist group blew up himself and seven Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon. Striking back, Israel’s Likud-Labour coalition government sent its warplanes to bomb Hizbollah and PLO bases in southern Lebanon—killing nine people and wounding 40. Meanwhile, in the West Bank and Gaza, there was continuing violence as Israeli troops battled Palestinian rioters and the death toll in the 10-month-old intifadeh, or uprising, rose to at least 309 Palestinians and six Israelis.

The intifadeh had provided the Israeli election campaign with its central issue: whether the Jewish state should relinquish control over the 5 Gaza Strip and parts of the £ West Bank in return for I peace. Hussein’s interven| tion—and his weekend talks x with Arafat and Mubarak— has now put the issue into even sharper focus.

The interview was a result of intensive secret contacts between Peres’s aides and ABC TV on the one hand and the Jordanian court on the other. Peres has maintained discreet con-

tacts with the king since they met secretly in London in April, 1987, and agreed on the desirability of an international conference involving the United States and the Soviet Union as well as interested Middle East parties. Shamir—Peres’s uneasy coalition partner in Israel’s so-called government of national unity—angrily vetoed the conference plan. He says that Israel should hold on to all the occupied territory, while giving the Palestinians limited local autonomy.

According to sources at ABC TV headquarters in New York City, the network was initially hesitant about becoming a platform for Middle East diplomacy—and a potential factor in the Israeli election. But a precedent had been set in 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat foreshadowed his dramatic peace initiative by telling CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, on the air, that he was ready to go to Jerusalem.

Peres appeared on the same Nightline program as Hussein last Thursday. Interviewed separately in Jerusalem, the Labour leader reiterated his intention, if elected, to immediately convene an international conference. When the riots in the occupied territories end, said Peres, the Palestinians could elect their own delegates to the peace talks. He intimated

that the delegates could include PLO supporters, although he appeared to rule out the PLO itself as “too factionalized” to make a credible negotiating partner. But Hussein’s involvement, added Peres, was “essential.”

In his appearance, from Amman, Hussein said that he found the Peres proposal “very encouraging” and “a step forward.” He added, “If the Palestinians seek it and ask us categorically, we are prepared to go to the conference in a joint delegation.” He reiterated the standard Arab formulation that “the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”—but added the words “as things now stand.” Said Hussein: “There is a very strong possibility of high-level contact with the PLO in the next few days.” That contact took place when Arafat flew to Amman with Mubarak.

The PLO has been torn by discord since the end of July, X when Hussein severed legal and administrative links with I the West Bank. Since then, the various PLO factions have been arguing over how to respond to Hussein’s decision and capitalize on the intifadeh. One option under consideration was to declare an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories and to accept a 1947 UN partition plan creating two states—one Arab, one Jewish—out of the formerly Britishruled Palestine mandate. That would at least imply recognition of Israel’s right to exist. A planned meeting of the Palestine National Council—the PLO “parliament”—was repeatedly postponed while the leadership sought consensus.

During his television interview, Hussein appeared nervous, obviously anxious not to seem to be downgrading the PLO’S role as the representative of the Palestinians. But when Koppel asked him for his reaction to a possible election victory for the hard-line Shamir, the king was much more forceful: “If [Shamir’s policies] are what he has consistently suggested they would be, then—absolute disaster. I cannot begin to imagine what the end results will be.”

Likud’s reaction was swift and harsh. Said Shamir: “I wish to express my regret and dismay over the attempt to drag foreign factors into the election campaign. The result will be determined by the people of Israel and not by any foreign interference.” And in an apparent attempt to characterize Peres as unpatriotic, he added, “This is an unprecedented event and a sign of lack of national pride.” For their part,

officials in the Peres camp conceded that the initiative might boomerang. But, said foreign ministry spokesman Alón Liel, “it was an important move to explain to the Israeli public that the international peace conference and the territory-for-peace formula are realistic ideas.”

Decima’s McKinnon, back at his base in Toronto before returning to Israel for the last leg of the campaign, drew similar conclusions. Said McKinnon: “It should help to convince the

electorate that the moderates in the Arab world will deal with a Labour government, and that there is a way of having a peace conference in which a moderate Arab presence would be dominant.” McKinnon added that his organization had not proposed the initiative to Peres, although “we were aware that a number of options were in the wind.” Still, it was in keeping with the kind of advice that Decima has been giving Peres: to try to set the campaign agenda and avoid a strictly reactive posture.

In Washington, some analysts claimed that the Peres-Hussein initiative may have little effect on the region or the election. “I doubt if the overall event is significant,” said William Quandt, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. “The election is going to turn on different issues, not on what King Hussein says. The king did not say anything new. He has always made it clear he prefers dealing with Peres.” Said Joyce Starr, director of the Near East studies program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies: “The whole event is worth maybe one evening of stir in Israel—and then it will be gone.” But, she added: “One evening of stir may change a few thousand votes. You never know what is going to affect people in Israel.”

Whatever its impact, the Hussein intervention—and the rapid response by Arafat and Mubarak—introduces new factors into an election campaign that was otherwise deadlocked. Decima’s latest poll, published last Friday in the mass-circulation Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, forecast that Labour would win 42 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament). Three centre and left-wing parties considered likely to join Labour in a coalition were expected to win another 12 seats between them, leaving a

Labour-led coalition seven seats short of a majority. Those extra seats would have to come from the small religious parties, which Decima forecast would probably win 10 seats. But many analysts said that Labour was likely to get the support of only three of those, making a total of 57 seats for a Labour-led coalition.

For Likud, the outlook seemed exactly the same.

Decima forecast that it would win 39 seats. Its potential coalition partners on the right would pick up nine more, the survey indicated, and its potential partners among the religious parties would provide up to an additional nine. That would also make a total of 57 seats. As a result, the three left-wing Arab parties, with a forecast total of nine seats, could hold the balance.

One possibility, analysts said, was that while the Arab parties were unlikely to join Labour in a coalition,

they might be willing to play the role of passive partners, supporting a minority Labour government on issues they agreed with and abstaining on those they did not.

Another possible outcome was that Labour and Likud might once again form a coalition government, as they did after the deadlocked 1984 general election. One prominent Israeli who clearly anticipated that outcome was President Chaim Herzog. During a state visit to France last week, he pointed out in a newspaper interview how strongly the current situation resembled that of 1984, when he persuaded the two rival parties to join forces. Said Herzog: “I am not disappointed with the result.” But, according to many analysts, the difference between the parties is now so fundamental that a grand coalition is no longer possible.

In the campaign debate over the security of Israel’s borders, an array of retired generals—as wellknown and popular to Israelis as rock stars and hockey players are to Canadians—have been playing starring roles. In a TV commercial for Likud, ex-air force general Ron Pecker is seen in a ground-hugging helicopter that suddenly veers and gains height. Turning to the camera from the pilot’s seat, the rugged Pecker says, “Before 1967 [when Israel occupied the West Bank], I had to turn my Mirage jet this way, just seconds after takeoff to avoid enemy territory.” In a Labour commercial, ex-general Avigdor Ben-Gal, a celebrated

tank commander, also appears in a helicopter. Hovering over the West Bank Arab city of Nablus, Ben-Gal says that Israel cannot remain a Jewish state if it keeps 1.5 million hostile Palestinians under its control. Many demographers predict that by early next century, the combined Arab population of Israel and the occupied territories will outnumber the country’s 4.4 million Jews.

Well before last week’s TV appearances, the majority of Israelis had clearly made up their minds on the issue of territory for peace. The Peres-Hussein initiative appeared designed not so much to change minds as to win over the small number of undecideds who could tip the scales in Labour’s favor. But it was a high-risk decision—one that could have exactly the opposite effect.