Peace the real loser

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 May, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 May, 1996, 12:00am

It would be comforting to be able to say that a defeat for Prime Minister Shimon Peres in Israel's cliffhanger election would not necessarily be the end of the peace process. After all, hardliners have turned peacemakers in the past. Sadly, if Benjamin Netanyahu is still ahead when the final 140,000 or so votes are counted, the peace process is more likely to go on indefinite hold. Worse, despite Mr Netanyahu's promise not to go back on agreements already signed, there is plenty of room for de facto if not de jure reversals.

A decision to build new settlements in areas of the West Bank or, indeed, the Golan Heights from which the military have not yet withdrawn, would certainly be a provocation. And Mr Netanyahu has said there will be no withdrawal from the Golan. That will make peace with Syria virtually impossible. He has also ruled out talks with the Palestinians on the status of Jerusalem - which both sides claim as their rightful capital - and vowed to block the creation of a Palestinian state.

But in the event that Mr Peres does edge back into the lead, he will be poorly placed to push ahead with peace. His Labour Party, like the opposition Likud, has lost seats to religious, ethnic and immigrant parties who are generally more sympathetic to the Right's call for peace through security than to the Left's vision of security through peace. Only an increase in support from Arab voters staved off a more humiliating defeat by Mr Netanyahu.

The only chance either man would have of building a government would be to build coalitions with security hawks and religious groups for whom the land Labour is pledged to return is holy ground. But regardless of the final outcome of the election, it is already clear that neither Mr Peres nor Mr Netanyahu can build a stable and united government prepared for new regional agreements.

What the Middle East needs is an Israel with the strength and self-confidence to take risks for peace. This election has, instead, brought instability and weakness.