Peace on hold

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 December, 1998, 12:00am

Once again, the Middle East peace process is on hold. Israel's ruling right-wing coalition voted in anger against its own Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and backed a call for new elections. Both hawks and doves are disgusted with the Wye peace accords Mr Netanyahu struck with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - and has since suspended - in a vain bid to satisfy his rebellious right wing.

The prime minister had to go to the country. Yet, while the short-term signs are not good, it is not clear the election will ultimately prove a disaster for peace.

For the moment, at least, the Palestinians are caught in yet another trap of Mr Netanyahu's manufacture. For four months, he will run a caretaker government which can claim it has no authority to make compromise, while campaigning on his old slogan of 'peace with security'. So far, to almost universal anger, he has failed to deliver either peace or security for Israelis, but continued to shrink the options open to Palestinians.

Yet any attempt by Mr Arafat to make good his threat to declare a Palestinian state in May will now be interpreted as provocative and intransigent. It will look like an attempt to pre-empt any fresh approach by whatever coalition emerges from the election.

However, the election need not throw up another intransigent, right-wing government, although the leader of the left-of-centre Labour Party, Ehud Barak, is not as dovish as the late Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres. There is also an apparently credible challenge from the popular military Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. But his allure may fade, once the country discovers what he stands for.

Nor is it certain, even were Mr Netanyahu to be re-elected, that the far-right would enjoy the influence it has now. If returned, under Israel's system of direct prime ministerial elections, he would probably attempt to form a coalition with Labour at the expense of the religious right. Mr Netanyahu will never be a dove or a dedicated peacemaker. But at the helm of centrist government he might have less trouble sticking to deals once he has struck them.