Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on January 20, 1999

BEYOND THE FRONT­RUNNERS

By Dr. Aaron Lerner

When the polls close in a few months, it is far from clear what mandate the winner will have. Of the major candidates, we have one who wants carte blanche, another whose sound­bite platform is internally inconsistent and a third who would not be facing early elections if he had only followed what he has embraced, once again, as his platform.

Does Amnon Lipkin­Shahak have red lines? He claims he does, but won't reveal them. Shahak's unstated motto, "Trust me," denies his supporters the opportunity to vote their views. Ehud Barak is confusing. He advocates separation ­ "we here, they there" ­ yet supports annexing the major settlement blocs and keeping "United Jerusalem" intact.

Barak is equally vague on security issues relating to the Palestinians. He trivializes the issue of illegal weapons ­ missiles, cannons, mines, etc. ­ that the Palestinian Authority has and refuses to dispose of, labeling it "a thousand rifles that Palestinians may or may not have," insisting that the real security issue is the nonconventional threat posed by Iran and Iraq.

Does he mean that as long as Yasser Arafat doesn't have a nuclear device we shouldn't let Palestinian weapons get in the way of further withdrawals?

Of course, in the democratic process the voters cast their ballots for the closest available match ­ which is rarely a perfect match ­ to their goals and ideals. Hopefully by Election Day, Barak will clarify his program. But that would still leave us with the Peres problem. Barak's spokesperson, Aliza Goren, told me that if Barak is elected, Shimon Peres will be a minister. She assured me that Peres would not work behind Barak's back. But given Peres's track record, I tend to doubt this. And I am not alone.

A Gallup Poll commissioned by the Independent Media Review and Analysis organization this week found that over half of adult Israeli Jews believe that Peres would pursue his own program even if it clashed with Barak's policies. Almost 44% of those who voted for Peres in 1996 shared this view.

As for Netanyahu, he zig­zags. He is now proud that he is building on Har Homa, but the construction contracts stipulate that "the manager is allowed to halt construction for governmental reasons."His campaign slogan on territory is "Barak will hand over, the Likud will keep" ­ yet Netanyahu pushed through approval of the Hebron withdrawal and pulled out from even more territory after signing the Wye Memorandum.

Netanyahu speaks of "reciprocity" yet he left most of Hebron before reciprocity was assured, and did it again this winter when he termed the Palestinian hand­wave in Gaza a "PNC decision to revoke the Palestinian charter." (It should be noted that the Palestinians' own official news agency, WAFA, doesn't say that there was a vote ­ only a waving of hands.)

It would have been one thing if the "hand wave" had truly been a watershed event. But it wasn't. Arafat still considers violence to be a legitimate tool for pressuring Israel. The statements of incitement continue; the only difference today is that a committee meets to catalog them.

Wye was so ambiguous that this committee has yet to even agree on what "incitement" is, let alone actually take measures to stop it. And the incitement works, with a recent Palestinian poll by the Center for Palestine Research and Studies finding almost 53% of Palestinians supporting armed attacks against Israel.

The prime minister insists that his administration ensured the security of the settlers in the Hebron Agreement, yet he concedes that their security has been compromised by Palestinian violations.

But let's be fair. The withdrawals outlined by Wye, as bad as they were, would probably not have brought the Netanyahu government down. It was the serious uncertainty regarding his true agenda that yielded the critical mass of opponents from his own camp. Which brings us to MK Ze'ev (Benny) Begin, who at this time is not considered a major candidate.

He certainly has a clear position on withdrawals ­ he wants none ­ but is "Just Say No" enough? Does Begin plan, as his detractors claim, to march back into Nablus and Gaza? Is he a one­issue candidate? Far from it.

Begin told me this week that he would support maintaining the ties and programs between Israel and the PA for the mutual benefit of all. While Barak speaks of slashing the number of Palestinian workers permitted within Israel, Begin sees Palestinian employment as vital for the welfare of our neighbors ­ criticizing the efficacy of closure as a security measure.

The same goes for Palestinian access to Israeli hospitals, ports and other services. But can Begin cut a deal with Arafat? Given the declared "red lines" of the other candidates, Begin notes, he is in good company. Insisting on a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty and the retention of major settlement blocks ­ Israeli demands unacceptable both to Arafat and the Clinton administration ­ puts Barak and Netanyahu in the same boat as Begin.

With one major difference. Begin would reach the impasse with a stronger position on the ground and the diplomatic advantage of clarity.

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Dr. Aaron Lerner is the Director IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis).


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