Israel's new round of elections are being called a referendum on the peace process, but they are not. That issue is already decided. The Oslo process moves unrelentingly forward because that's what the Israeli electorate wants - not because Prime Minister Netanyahu is weak or the American government pressures him
Five years of experience show that a substantial majority of Israelis want the Oslo process to proceed almost without regard to Palestinian behavior. Compliance is a virtually dead issue.
Why so? The key factor is a profound sense of fatigue. With the exception of the religiously observant, Israelis speak with near despair about the unpleasantness of their having to repress Palestinians, of having to serve in the military and, more generally, of being mired in a century-old tribal conflict.
Instead, they want to pursue more modern and exciting pursuits - the Internet, drip technology, cutting-edge social experimentation and other pleasures of the late 20th century. This longing for release leads to a willingness to try anything, even the rather unlikely proposition that ignoring aggression by Palestinians might prompt the latter to calm down and accept Israel's existence. If they achieve prosperity, the thinking goes, if they have reason to hope for the future, then they are more likely to become civilized neighbors.
Since the breakthrough 1993 agreement, relations between Israelis and Palestinians have been based on a very simple deal. Israel granted the Palestinians control over their own life. In return, Palestinians accept the permanent existence of a Jewish state. Israel, the victor in war, gives material benefits to the losers; the Arab side merely has to promise to behave itself.
Reality is quite different. Israel, a law-abiding democracy, must do as it says, for its own citizens demand nothing less. And, indeed, some 97% of Palestinians now live under the Palestinian Authority. To be sure, Israel has not fulfilled 100% of its promises, nor has it always done so in a timely manner, but (to use a legal term) it has materially fulfilled its promises.
What about the Palestinians? Yes, they participate in joint security patrols and sometimes express peaceful intent. But these positive signs are nearly drowned out by their huge number of infractions. Yasser Arafat's speeches are replete with allusions to jihad. The P.A.'s logo includes the entirety of Israel, implying that the it ultimately seeks to do away with the Jewish State. The P.A. television station shows small children singing anthems full of martial threats and violent rhetoric. Survey data shows the population exceedingly unwilling to establish human ties with their Israeli neighbors.
Worse, the P.A. brings in vast arsenals prohibited by the accords. There are also indications that the P.A. has, again in defiance of its agreements, begun to manufacture weapons. Not unreasonably, Israeli authorities conclude that the P.A. is preparing for battle.
In normal circumstances, when one party to a contract does not fulfill its obligations, the other side stops delivering what it promised. But a strange thing is taking place in this case: Israelis have generally chosen to ignore the Palestinians' dismal record. Instead, they keep handing over more territory and other benefits. Rather than take the obvious step of holding up negotiations until the Palestinians do as they promised, Israelis deem Palestinian behavior acceptable. They complain about Palestinian transgressions and they sometimes slow down negotiations, but at each decisive moment, they invariably go ahead and sign more agreements, give more rewards.
Nothing shows this pattern so clearly as the Israeli willingness on three different occasions to bargain for the same concession by the Palestinians. In agreements signed in 1993, 1997 and 1998. Mr. Arafat solemnly promised to annul the many phrases in the Palestinian National Charter that call for the destruction of Israel. It took Mr. Clinton going to Gaza to get it done.
The surprising thing is not that the Palestinians take advantage of Israeli patience but that Israelis let them to do so. The body politic has a reputation for emphasizing security issues, but a closer look reveals that in fact it is willing to overlook almost any terrorist act. For example, a bomb went off in Gaza during the Wye Plantation negotiations killing a soldier. Mr. Netanyahu said he would stop negotiations. A few days later, he did sign an agreement. Repeatedly, the Israelis announce that they can no longer accept Palestinians transgressions, only to accept them soon after.
This puzzling behavior results from a near-consensus within the Israeli body politic to proceed regardless of Palestinian trespasses. By a 4-to-1 margin the Oslo process remains popular in Israel. Thus, the toppling of the Netanyahu government raises only the question of which politician will end up as prime minister and pace the future of the negotiations - not their outcome.
The implications of this consensus are not cheerful. If Israelis insist on pursuing the chimera of co-opting Palestinians by enriching them, they will sooner or later find themselves facing not just an overwhelming hostile people, but one that now has far greater means at its disposal. Eventually, Israelis will realize that, however unpleasant the prospect, they must resume their deterrence posture of old. They will have no choice but to stick to the dull but effective policy of making sure that anyone who threatens them pays dearly for his aggressiveness.
This is the bad news. The good news is that this tough approach will one day succeed. The Palestinians, will recognize the permanence of Israel. This may take decades, or even longer. When it does happen, then the time will be ripe to show magnanimity. In the meantime, the premature conclusion that Palestinians have closed down the conflict, when they in fact have not, is sure recipe for trouble.