News Analysis: Peres may have miscalculated by calling for elections

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Shimon Peres may have painted himself into a corner by moving toward early national elections in the hopes of clinching a peace deal with Syria before voters go to the polls.

That deal, however, may not materialize in time.

Several Labor Party leaders have been muttering this week about the wily and experienced premier's apparent miscalculation.

They say it may play into the hands of the Likud opposition, which would be pleased to fight an election over the Golan Heights before a treaty with Syria could be concluded.

Peres himself is said to be furious about reports here that the government is "disappointed" after the latest rounds of peace negotiations with Syria.

Together with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who visited here last week, and Vice President Al Gore, who was here this week, Peres sought to persuade local and foreign media that the talks are going even better than expected.

Christopher said he was the "opposite of disappointed." But the mood in Jerusalem after Christopher's latest Damascus-Jerusalem shuttle is less than jubilant.

If the issue were solely the talks themselves, government policymakers would be less worried. After many months of idleness, these talks are indeed proceeding slowly.

But the slow pace of the talks is troubling Israeli Cabinet ministers and parliamentarians aligned with Labor. They are concerned over the meshing of the two timetables regarding peace talks with Syria and this year's national elections.

At a top-level ministerial meeting Sunday night, Peres demanded that the link be severed between the talks and elections. However, the issues are at the core of Israeli life, and Peres will find it tough to persuade people otherwise.

Christopher's mission secured an agreement between Israel and Syria for two more negotiating sessions at the Wye Plantation in Maryland, the setting for six days of talks in December and early this month between Israeli, Syrian and American delegations.

The negotiations, scheduled to resume next week, would be followed by another Christopher shuttle early in February. The next rounds in Maryland will feature senior military officers alongside the diplomats who met in Wye.

Syria's President Hafez Assad, wary as always, declined to send economists and water experts to join the talks, as Israel suggested.

Trying to put the best light on the talks, Environment Minister Yossi Sarid said Monday that Assad was not balking at the need to discuss water resources and economic cooperation — these issues had come up already and would continue to be discussed.

Sarid said the major success at Wye was the agreement that a treaty between Israel and Syria would bring about treaties with other Arab states.

This would mean "the end of the Middle East conflict," he said.

Syria's assent to this quest for "comprehensiveness" represented a major advance.

Yet, Sarid cautioned that the process would be long and arduous, and hyping expectations would be counterproductive.

Informed sources say Sarid's criticism about overstating expectations reflects a sharp dispute among key ministers and close Peres aides.

Uri Savir, director general of the Foreign Ministry and head of the Israeli delegation at Wye, is confident that a major breakthrough toward peace with Syria is attainable soon.

Others, including Foreign Minister Ehud Barak, Savir's nominal boss, and Itamar Rabinovich, the ambassador to Washington and co-head of the talks with Syria, are reportedly more cautious.

Peres "is listening to both sides and not making his own mind up yet," said one observer.

Peres can wait until mid-February before deciding whether to seek early elections in June instead of the scheduled October date. June is considered optimal, because in July and August many voters — and especially young voters, who in opinion polls appear strongly pro-Labor– go abroad for vacation. September and October are busy with the High Holidays.

Last week, Peres, at an ostensibly private meeting of staff and supporters, suggested June 4 as a polling day. Well-placed Labor and Likud sources say the election will take place in June, and Peres determined this when he scheduled Labor Party primaries for April instead of late summer.

Now, these sources say, he can hardly delay the election until the fall. For one, those Labor members who do poorly in the primaries may become a dissident force.

Did Peres make his move too soon? Did he make it relying on a dramatic breakthrough with Syria, which now seems less likely? If so, has he endangered what seemed an impregnable Labor lead in polls?

In Likud, there was a marked upswing in the mood this week. Likud hopes to fight on a platform it believes is still popular: the supreme strategic importance of the Golan Heights versus uncertainty of peace with Syria and the Arab world.

Since Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, the Likud and its right-wing partners have been in the doldrums, as their support erodes.

The smooth handover of major West Bank cities to Palestinian control emptied the right wing's former "Land of Israel" policies of practical relevance. No pragmatic party would seriously advocate rolling back the treaty with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

So the shaping up of the elections around the Golan comes as something of a windfall for Likud.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud member and confidant of party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, says Likud doesn't care if elections go to June.

His position is bolstered by those who say that by October there will be no Syrian deal — and that public concern about leaving the Golan will hold center stage.

Sarid has his own interest in seeing the election date intact — to keep the Syrian talks moving.

By October, even without a treaty, he said, "we will hopefully have a number of important agreements with the Syrians to put before the public."