Yitzhak Rabin’s coalition government, to which he put the finishing touches this week, has been described as the most “dovish” (that is, pro-peace) in Israel’s history. While he is leaving positions open for more hardline parties to join at a later date, Rabin understands that it is important to carry forward the momentum created by Labour’s victory into the peace process. His invitation to Palestinian and Arab leaders to meet him, issued in his speech to the Knesset on Monday, made the point clearly.
Rabin is evidently relying on the advice of the younger, pro-peace elements in the party than on Labour’s old guard. He appointed as his education minister, Shulamit Aloni, the strongly secular leader of the Meretz, the peace camp. This so outraged the Tsomet (on the far right), United Torah Judaism (ultra orthodox) and the National Religious Party (representing the settlers), that they refused to take up portfolios in the new administration. This was greeted with undisguised relief by the Israeli left.
Despite the euphoria, Labour only scraped in—a movement of just 100 votes would have lost one of Rabin’s partners, the Arab Democratic Party, one of its seats. This would then have left the Likud and Labour blocs with 60 seats each, probably leading to another deadlocked “national unity” government
But it is a propitious time for peace negotiations. Rabin’s electoral success reflected a widespread mood that the tired Likud party under Shamir was not up to dealing with new opportunities for peace. As Moshe Arens, the recently retired Likud defence minister, remarked in the Israeli press last week, Shamir was never serious about negotiations with the Palestinians. Shamir, himself, said that he could have dragged out the meetings for ten years.
In moving swiftly, Rabin believes he will wrong-foot the still-stunned right before they have an opportunity to reorganise. As opinion polls have consistently shown, only a minority of Israelis believe in the hallowed project of constructing “Judea” and “Samaria”. The vast majority of settlers came for economic reasons, and only a tiny fraction—fewer than 20,000—tor ideological and religious reasons. Even Moshe Arens, who is on the right of Likud, has observed that Israelis are not really interested in retaining the Territories, and even proposed the return of Gaza. If such a heresy can come from one of Likud’s elder statesmen, what about the factions within the party—such as the Sephardim—who were never enamoured with colonising Judea and Samaria? This shift in opinion was also underlined by the remarkable fact that Labour polled more votes in the Territories than did Techiya, the far right party of the settlers.
Rabin’s reputation as the bone-breaker of Palestinian youth in the Intifada still inhibits most Palestinians and many on the Israeli left from fully welcoming these developments. Yet it may be Rabin’s deep desire to succeed where his more dovish rival, Shimon Peres, whom he ousted, failed, that will propel Rabin into an agreement with the Palestinians and his place in the history books.
New Statesman editorial 17 July 1992