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Rabin's balancing act.

The Israeli government of Yitzhak Rabin has every reason to be proud of itself. Since coming to power last year, Drew Harrison reports from Jerusalem, his labour party appears to have kept the upper hand in peace talks with the Arabs and secured a workable relationship with its fractious allies in the Knesset.

ISRAEL LOOKS AHEAD to 1993 with high hopes on all fronts. The incoming US administration has committed itself to continuing the impetus of the peace process while looking for Arab gestures to reciprocate for the allowances Israel has made for, albeit minor, violations committed by the Palestinian delegation.

As the peace process favours Israel's strategy for an interim arrangement, allowing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories some degree of autonomy, Israel could not hope for a better endorsement. Among the gestures the United States seeks from the Arabs is the removal of the commercial boycott of companies doing business with Israel, a reversal which could boost the Israeli economy.

All post-election assessments forecast a Clinton White House to be more supportive of Israel and its needs than the previous administration. Not only could this pay off in economic terms. With continued levels of aid, weaponry, and strategic cooperation, and the approval of the $8bn balance of the loan guarantees, it may mean Israel returns to the role of the West's trusted friend and ally in the midst of a chaotic, hostile region. While the Rabin government has much to distinguish it from its hawkish predecessor, in practical terms it is hard to discern how Israel can dramatically transform its current situation without a corresponding metamorphosis in the region.

Since the peace process began, Israel has established relations - and the potential for trade - with a number of countries, most notably China and India. Recent overtures to the newly-emerged Asian republics of the former Soviet Union indicate just how useful a role Israel can play as a conveyor of Western technology and financial aid to developing countries.

Furthermore, Israel is seen by these countries as a conduit for US favour and assistance. From agriculture and irrigation to sophisticated defence technology, Israel has overcome many of the problems faced by countries in the region, including the education and integration of large numbers of disparate groups - the Jews of the diaspora - and the evolution away from socialist institutions. In the difficult times facing countries struggling to find a formula that can assure their survival and a balance of forces, Israel has much to offer.

It was largely Israeli participation in the peace process that has led to the rehabilitation of its pariah image, to the point where Israel accepted a request by the UN secretary-generaL Boutros Ghali, to send troops to UN peacekeeping missions. Even if the peace process fails to secure peace for Israel with all its neighbours, accomplishments in other sectors have insured that Israel's involvement was worthwhile.

On the domestic front, the Israeli government, headed by the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, has already overcome its share of difficulties in trying to assuage the conflicting agendas of its diverse coalition members. Most obvious of the conflicts stems from the Orthodox religious parties' challenge to the Meretz (Citizen's Right's Movement) leader, Shulamit Aloni, who has been appointed to head the Education Ministry.

Partisan misuse of funds between the religious parties to court their constituencies has been a charge plaguing successive ministers. Indeed, the minister of the interior, Arye Deri, a member of the Shas Orthodox religious party and the only member of the previous government to have retained his post, is still under investigation for political misappropriation of funds. Over the years the elaboration of religious school facilities has come at the expense of the state schools and secular education. The leftist liberal agenda of the Meretz party seeks to put things right.

However, Shulamit Aloni's secular influence in the education of a generation of Jewish youth seems intent on extirpating every religious reference and symbol, even to the point of changing the opening words of the Remembrance Day Ceremony from "God will remember" to "the Jewish people will remember." While her thoroughness and ardour may be admirable, her intervention has been viewed overwhelmingly as intrusive and nit-picking this despite the moderate religiosity of the general population and the widespread dislike for Orthodox institutions' influence on society.

The prime minister intervened to mediate a compromise that would save the government coalition and allow Aloni to remain in her post. (Should Rabin have lost the participation of Shas or Meretz, his government would have had to rely on the Arab parties for its continued existence.)

When the government was formed, Aloni's nomination to the post was referred to with condolence in a letter otherwise intended to welcome a new administration. And Aloni's open violation of Jewish dietary laws and travel on the Sabbath led to a further series of insults from the religious parties, culminating in an article in the newspaper of the Orthodox party, Agudat Yisrael, that compared the appointment of Aloni with the slaying of a million Jewish children in the Holocaust. Rabin asked both sides to avoid outrageous expressions and to respect and recognise the differences of others.

Signs of movement toward the separation of religion and state first surfaced as a timely proposal when the new group of Labour party leaders headed by Avraham Burg, endorsed such a change at their last convention. While the introduction of civil marriage has long been raised as the first possible step to allow the state a role in family matters, greater political concerns require that the government maintain its coalition, which for now relies on the support of religious voters.

Several government ministries remain in the hands of the prime minister, including those of Defense and Labour and Welfare. As the sensitive decisions relating to security and defense often bear with them political repercussions, the prime minister has decided for the time being-perhaps for the duration of the peace process - to keep the two roles closely coordinated and under his direction. The other empty cabinet posts are held vacant with the hope that eventually other parties will join the government coalition.

The Labour party victory in forming a new government was attributed to votes cast by new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. News of high unemployment and sometimes isolated living conditions filtered back and many would-be immigrants postponed their planned departure. Forecasters project economic growth of at least 7% annually for the next several years, chiefly as the by-product of the wave of highly-educated and young newcomers.

A rise in instability and in racist attacks in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe could increase new arrivals to 500,000 or more over the next several years. While the workforce has substantially increased in the past two years, mostly in the housing industry in order to create facilities for the influx of immigrants, all sectors have expanded in order to fill consumer needs. Some moves are under way to cut back state control of the economy and bypass bureaucracy and taxes. They remain controversial and are under challenge.

Much of this promising picture depends on regional developments, especially in light of the peace process. The threat of war or upheaval may serve as a broad disincentive to investors and immigrants. And increased defense costs will drain resources away from more productive uses.


GDP: NIS134.7bn; $54.6bn GDP per capita: $10,070 Population: 5.1m GDP growth: 1992 6.0%; 1993 7.0% Inflation: 1992 11.0%; 1993 9.0%

* Despite the inevitable divisions within the government dictated by Israel's coalition politics, Yitzhak Rabin's Labour party seems set to remain firmly in charge. It can only benefit from the disarray of the Likud opposition which has yet to recover from last year's election defeat. Rabin will have his work cut out dealing with the friction between the religious and secular elements among his backers, but has stamped his authority on the government. Priority will be given to dealing with social and economic problems.

* The Rabin administration is poised to benefit from the advent of President Bill Clinton. He can be expected to adopt a far more benign attitude to Israel than George Bush. This does not bode well for progress in peace negotiations, particularly with the Palestinians, since Israel will feel emboldened to refuse concessions. Autonomy for the West Bank will probably exclude defence and administration of Jewish settlements, heightening the likelihood of a rejectionist backlash among the Palestinians.
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Title Annotation:Outlook 1993; Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
Author:Harrison, Drew
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Arab-Israeli conflict: a step or two behind reality.
Next Article:Lebanon: on the edge of the abyss.

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