The shifting political sands in Israel may leave it on even shakier ground than before the peace process exploded. The Middle East is a tinderbox into which Israeli political turbulence has now been thrown to ignite further passions.
In the middle of a bloody, two-month long conflict with the Palestinians that shows little sign of abating, the besieged Israeli prime minister's sudden call for new elections will either strengthen his hand in calming the storm or force his early retirement.
Looming ominously in the early campaign for power are old foes of the all-but-dead peace process like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is widely speculated that having survived a scandal relatively unscathed, Mr. Netanyahu will attempt a comeback at politics by maneuvering to lead his Likud Party in another face-off against the man who defeated his re-election bid two years ago.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak won a landslide victory over the former prime minister on the hopes of many Israelis that the former general and head of the Labor Party could bring reality to his late mentor's promise of peace. But the martyrdom of Yitzhak Rabin should have foretold how difficult the task would be with religious zealots of both Arab and Jewish persuasion absolutely rejecting any move toward peace with sworn enemies.
Despite exhaustive efforts by Prime Minister Barak to broker a peace agreement with the Palestinians, he failed and saw the fragile diplomatic links established between himself and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat disintegrate into blind fury. Through it all, the Israeli prime minister faced a constant struggle to appease hard-liners within his government who threatened to undermine him at every turn.
Rather than wait for his likely fate to play out in a parliament moving fast to wrest what control remained in his hands, Mr. Barak gambled again on beating the odds. While he remains at the helm for the next few months before the election, he may push hard to chart a new course of negotiations with the Palestinians. If he can forge even a temporary peace deal with the Palestinians by initiating new diplomatic and military proposals, he could wind up keeping his job.
On the other hand, wary Palestinians view the political turmoil in Israel with the caution borne of experience with false optimism. How much time and effort can honestly be spent reconstructing a framework for peace when big stakes election campaigning is under way? Will progress or lack thereof at the peace table simply be fodder for campaign speeches and subsequently disregarded depending on the outcome of the election?
Injecting yet more questions and uncertainty into a region of the world already writhing in the throes of a grave crisis may have been unavoidable considering the fast collapsing Barak minority government, but the timing was terrible nonetheless.
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