After nearly a month of negotiations, Israel’s new prime minister, Mr. Ariel Sharon, has cobbled together his “unity Cabinet.” It may represent a broad spectrum of political opinion, but it is unlikely to be united for long. Once Mr. Sharon gets down to resuming peace talks with the Palestinians — his most pressing assignment — he will be buffeted by the same forces that undermined his predecessor and governments before him.
Mr. Sharon defeated Prime Minister Ehud Barak in a landslide victory after promising an end to the five-month uprising that has convulsed the Middle East. The new prime minister has offered no radical solutions to achieve the peace that has eluded the men who held the premier’s office in the past. Everything in his career suggests he will be a hardliner, retreating to the position of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Likud Party member like Mr. Sharon, who is widely believed to have derailed the Oslo peace process when he was in office.
Initial signs are not promising. Mr. Sharon has demanded that the Palestinians halt the violence before he will resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. That will be difficult, if only because it is unclear whether that government can leash the anger that has overtaken the Palestinian people. To his credit, Mr. Sharon has distanced himself from the maximalists: He said that he has no intention of reoccupying lands already handed over to the Palestinians.
Mr. Sharon does not have to go that far to undo the peace process. Economic measures can be every bit as damaging. On March 4, Israeli forces sealed off Ramallah, a Palestinian commercial center, after the government claimed that terrorists would use it to gain access to Jerusalem. The city was reopened a few days later, and travel restrictions to other cities have been eased, but the warning is clear. Mr. Sharon can — and will — cut off the Palestinians’ economic lifeline.
Those restrictions have caused great hardship for the 3 million Palestinians. One measure prevents 100,000 Palestinians from commuting to their former jobs in Israel. In addition, Israel is not paying the customs duties and tax receipts it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Tourism has collapsed. Unemployment has reached 38 percent, incomes are shrinking and savings have evaporated. Last year, the Palestinian economy grew a respectable 5.5 percent. Now, it has lost half its value and is on the brink of financial collapse.
Israel has economic problems of its own. The violence has taken a toll on Israel’s finances. It has cut tourist revenues while inflating military spending. The end of the Barak government was a period of virtual political paralysis and parties pushed through spending bills that benefited them and their constituents. Finally, the downturn in the United States has hurt Israel’s high-tech sector, which accounts for 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and powered its 6 percent growth last year. Tighter budgets will only increase strains in the “unity” Cabinet.
Peace is in everyone’s interest. Building it is another matter. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a dovish addition to the Sharon Cabinet, said last week that there had been a slight drop in terrorism. That could provide Mr. Sharon with an opening to pursue talks with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, but the new prime minister seems less than enthusiastic about such a meeting.
Yet even if the two men sit down — and at some point they must — the talks are sure to be difficult. The Palestinians expect new negotiations to pick up where old ones left off. Mr. Sharon has said that is impossible. He has disavowed discussions on new land concessions; he has discarded the idea of a comprehensive peace.
Instead, Mr. Sharon would seek negotiations limited to reaching a “nonbelligerency” agreement that might include turning over a few more parcels of land to the Palestinians. There is concern that Mr. Sharon’s policies will overturn the peace process and set the stage for a far more serious conflict.
There are restraints on the prime minister. Although he won a landslide election victory, recent polls show that the Israeli people fully support the broad-based coalition government. Israelis want peace, as do Palestinians. The problem is finding the right terms. A unity government is intended to ensure that all voices are heard, so that the policy it develops will enjoy genuine support. Only a nation united can stand up to the forces of terror — which exist among Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians — that oppose any peace. Unfortunately, Israel’s history shows a tendency for “unity” governments to turn upon themselves. Assembling a Cabinet is the easy part; making it work together is Mr. Sharon’s first challenge.
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