The guns fell silent in southern Lebanon in the early hours of 27 April as the US-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah came into force.
Israel’s military bombardment of the preceding 17 days claimed more than 150 lives and caused millions of dollars worth of damage.
Yet, it remains unclear what Israel has actually achieved from the whole exercise. It secured a written understanding through JS mediation with Syria, but the agreement was unsigned and did not significantly alter the 1993 oral agreement, which restricted Hezbollah attacks to Israel’s self-declared security zone.
The blitz on southern Lebanon also failed to boost Prime Minister Shimon Peres’ domestic popularity ahead of the 29 May general election. ‘The conflict turned out more complicated than expected,’ says Dore Gold, Senior Researcher at the Jaffe Centre for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. ‘At the start the government claimed that Hezbollah could be destroyed using smart bombs, but it soon became clear that these couldn’t deliver victory. There is widespread disappointment about the way it turned out. Peres has hyped up the written agreement, but in reality Israeli troops can still be attacked in the security zone.’ With an end to the fighting in Lebanon, Israel is again focusing on the forthcoming general election. Peres is currently about 5 per cent ahead of his Likud rival Benjamin Netanyahu in the opinion polls, hut the situation remains fluid. Further terrorist atrocities inside Israel could easily swing the balance in Netanyahus favour Both Labour and Likud have now drawn up their election platforms. The fundamental differences between the two parties on the question of the peace process will ensure that the result on 29 May will have a profound and lasting impact on the whole region.
On the Palestinian peace front, Labour made its intentions abundantly clear on 25 April when it approved a party platform that did not rule out a Palestinian state. The move comes ahead of the final status negotiations with the Palestinians, which will begin on 5 May. These talks will cover the issues of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees and Palestinian statehood.
While Peres has allowed for the creation of a Palestinian state Likud has ruled this out. Netanyahu says that a Likud government would enter final status talks with the Palestinians, but most analysts believe that there would be little to discuss. ‘The gap would be wide. Likud rules out a Palestinian state and intends to turn chunks of the West Bank into security zones,’ says Gold. Likud also insists that Israeli security forces should have the right to enter Palestinian self-rule areas to apprehend Palestinian militants, something that breaks both the word and spirit of the Oslo accords.
Although both parties say that Jerusalem should remain unified, Labour is at least prepared to discuss the future of the city with the Palestinians. ‘Labour was the first Israeli gov ernment to agree to make Jerusalem negotiable,’ says Gold. ‘The forces of the Israeli left are looking for an understanding with the Palestinians on the issue.’ Likud reacted scathingly to reports at the end of February that Yossi Beilin, a left-wing cabinet member, had drawn up a draft agreement with Palestinian minister Abu Mazen which included the establishment of a Palestinian state and the Muslim holy places on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount being declared ex-territorial areas.
On the Syria peace track, the prospects for progress under a Likud administration are even more bleak since an agreement hinges on an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. ‘The peace process will become quickly stalled under Likud,’ says Moshe Maoz, Fellow of the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University and author of ‘Syria: From War to Peacemaking’. ‘Likud has hinted that it would be prepared to give up a small slice of the Golan Heights in return for peace, but Syria is not prepared for peace for just part of the Golan Heights. It is simply a non-starter.’
Rather than a partner in peace, Likud continues to perceive Syrian President Asad as an adversary. Netanyahu is said to believe that Asad is more concerned about buttressing his domestic and regional position rather than regaining the Golan Heights. During the recent conflict in Lebanon, he dismissed Peres’ attacks on Iran, and accused Syria of being Hezbollah’s prime sponsor. ‘Asad is using Hezbollah to wage a proxy war on Israel. He believes it is legitimate to use terrorism,’ says Gold. ‘As long as he’s playing that game, no agreement with him can be stable.’ In stark contrast, Peres is prepared to give up the Golan Heights in return for a peace agreement. ‘If Peres wins, I can envisage an agreement in a matter of months. President Clinton will press for a breakthrough before the US elections in November,’ says Maoz.
However, even under a new Labour government, obstacles to a settlement will remain.
The extent of an Israeli withdrawal and the pace of normalisation in relations between the two countries still have to be resolved. Peres is understood to have now dropped the demand, made by his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin, for early warning stations, that had led to the breakdown in talks in 1995.
In the coming weeks, both Peres and Netanyahu will be fighting to secure the middle ground of the Israeli electorate. This will entail a certain amount of role reversal with Peres looking to reassure the electorate that he’s tough on security while Netanyahu will make positive noises about the peace process.
But behind the rhetoric there lies a fundamental difference in vision, with Peres alone committed to working towards a final resolution to the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours.