It's still not known who will be running for prime minister, but it's clear the diplomatic issues will be concealed until January 28. In their appeals to the voters of the center, the large parties will try to hide the skeletons in their closets - the settlements and Oslo. That's why we'll hear a lot from the left about social and economic crises, and about an aggressive war on terror from the right. But as in the past, it will be an illusion. The campaign can be conducted as if Israel is in Western Europe and deliberating on issues like the budget, poverty and pensions. In reality, which will awaken the day the polls close, domestic and foreign policy is dictated by the relationship with the Palestinians. And that will quickly return to the top of the agenda.
Advancing the elections shortens the timetable. There had been talk about a "year of waiting" until the end of the Iraq war and the election campaign in Israel. Now the two processes have been united. At the end of February or March, a new government with a fresh mandate from the public will be named in Jerusalem. Around the same time, it will become known whether the Americans succeeded in their campaign against Saddam Hussein and what their next target has become.
There's a broad consensus in the political and security establishment in Israel that the Americans will head to Jerusalem from Baghdad, to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. That's the belief in ministerial offices, in the general staff, in Military Intelligence, and the Defense Ministry. The conventional wisdom says that if the U.S. wins easily against Saddam, it will have to pay off its friends in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to block the expected wave of anti-Americanism in the Arab street. If the war turns sour, and Iraq turns into a second Vietnam, the Americans will owe the Arabs even more. In both cases, the price is known in advance: getting the Israelis out of the territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The plan is also well known - the "road map" the Americans presented for a final status agreement within three years.
Likud ministers are expecting a clash between Israel and the administration over the demand for concessions, and withdrawals on "the day after." In the offices of the prime minister and the chief of staff, they believe the American pressure will be aimed first at the Palestinians, to implement the reforms and replace Arafat's regime. But President Bush made clear to Ariel Sharon that if the Palestinians do their part, Israel will have to pay in kind. Just last week a message arrived from Washington saying that Bush takes the "road map" very seriously, and wants to see an interim Palestinian state while he is still in office. The administration is also grumbling about the settlements.
There is a minority view in the Foreign Ministry. Deputy Director General for North America, Yoram Ben-Ze'ev, believes the administration won't depart from its current path of keeping its hands off the conflict, even after the war in Iraq. He thinks on "the day after," Bush will only care about one thing - his reelection in 2004 - and the last thing he'll want to do is upset the Jewish voters and donors and Israel's friends in the Christian right. A glint of that could be found in the National Strategic Plan issued by the White House in September. After a lengthy passage about demands on both the Palestinians and Israel, the administration notes that with all due respect to the important role of the Americans, responsibility for a solution is on the shoulders of the parties.
What will Bush do? It depends on a lot of factors: the results of the war, his domestic position, Palestinian behavior. So far, the administration has coordinated its positions to win Israeli agreement. But even if the U.S. avoids pressure and conflicts it will need to demonstrate diplomatic activity after the war. And then, the "road map" will become the core of the debate, and no longer the purview of a few bored officials.
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