BENJAMIN NETANYAHU'S victory over Shimon Peres—architect, with Yitzhak Rabin, of the Middle East peace process—has sent shock waves throughout the world.
Given the recent Hamas suicide bombings and Hezbollah firing on Israel's northern cities, the pundits expected a close vote—with Peres winning by a hair. Few anticipated that the hair's breadth would go to Netanyahu and the staunchly nationalist coalition he heads.
What the Netanyahu win represents, however, is less a new direction than the old status quo. Throughout the ‘70s and ’80s—the age of Likud dominance over Israeli politics—Israelis were evenly split over competing visions of “calculated risks for peace” and “security.” Thirty thousand Israeli voters at the end of May (less than a percentage point) placed the nation on the time-worn path of “security.”
Security as national aim was a sensible strategy at a time when the Jewish state was surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors. But it's a potentially destabilizing one at a time of fragile new Arab-Israeli alliances, a Palestinian peace process entering its most delicate stage, and the promise of Israel's integration in the region's economic and political life.
The success of Rabin and Peres’ efforts last year, and the prime minister's assassination last November, briefly put the majority of Israelis on the “risk” track. Now, apparently, it's back to the familiar political gridlock of the recent past—a status quo in which Likud leaders have balked at every chance for rapproachment with Arabs and their Labor Party opponents have thwarted Likud's aims at every turn. In the current regional configuration, one fears the elections herald an era of no peace and no security.
The post-election scenario brings to mind the words of a wise, but little heralded, commentator on Middle Eastern affairs: the late Father Bruno Hussar, who died last Feb. 8 in Jerusalem. Father Hussar, a French Dominican priest, saw the problem on the Israeli side as “the search for absolute security,” a situation brought about by a strong military and an unparalleled internal security apparatus that would make Israelis virtually invulnerable to attacks by hostile Arab elements and give them a sense of complete safety. According to Father Hussar, the founder of the 25-year-old Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, a pioneering residential community of Arabs and Jews living together, that aspiration was not only illusory, but threatened to turn the country into a police state.
For the Palestinians, the problem was different, Father Hussar felt. For many Arabs, the search was for “absolute justice” —the return of all Arab land “confiscated” by Israelis and the right of every Palestinian to return to the home he'd occupied a half-century before. This, too, the priest said, while understandable, was a form of tyranny which placed the Palestinians on the illusory and self-defeating path of “permanent revolution.”
With either security or justice as absolutes, the achievement of peace between Arabs and Jews was impossible, Father Hussar believed. Both aims had to be tempered by realism and flexibility in order for peace to have a chance.
Israeli writer David Grossman, has written that the path to peace that Peres and Rabin ” laid out was one I could walk on, one that allowed me, without ignoring the harsh reality of the Middle East, to perceive room for maneuver. That small space was a place where I could begin to breathe.”
Let's hope that the new prime minister and his nationalist colleagues manage not to give in to the “politics of fear” and smother that small breathing space, created by brave Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, with such difficulty and sacrifice.