Experts debate: Will Israel become a pariah state again

Whether Israel's sudden swing to the right will resurrect its status as an international pariah is a matter already up for debate.

"The question is: What now? Will Israel once again be looked upon as standing in the way of peace?" asked William "Ze'ev" Brinner, professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at U.C. Berkeley.

The answer isn't clear.

Brinner was among three experts in San Francisco analyzing Israel's future the morning after national elections swept the right wing back into power. The panel discussion, part of the American Jewish Press Association's annual conference, took place Thursday of last week, before Benjamin Netanyahu was officially declared the winner in the race for prime minister against Shimon Peres.

But the early results gave the panelists plenty to consider.

Nimrod Barkan, Israel's consul general in San Francisco, dismissed the notion that the Jewish state will suffer immediately on either the diplomatic or economic front.

"I think anyone talking about Israel going back to a pariah state is wrong," Barkan said.

Israel's expanding economy, for example, is not only the result of the Oslo peace accords, Barkan noted. The shift also is tied to the influx of 700,000 immigrants in the past few years and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which opened up "natural markets" in Eastern Europe.

Barkan also downplayed any potential retreat on the part of Arab countries. These nations will continue to build relations with Israel, he said, because they fear Islamic fundamentalists within their own borders and understand that they can reach Western markets via Israel.

But Ori Nir, a veteran Palestinian affairs reporter for the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz, called Barkan's analysis too simplistic.

The world's perception of Israel generally has little to do with the country's actual policies, he said.

The bombing of the United Nations base in Lebanon and the closure of the West Bank "have really been excused" because of the Labor-led government's peace-seeking image, Nir said.

The reputations of Ariel Sharon and Rafael Eitan, two hawkish politicians almost sure to attain top positions in Netanyahu's government, suggest that Israel will not likely be so easily forgiven in the future, Nir said. Sharon, the housing minister under former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, was practically a persona non grata in President George Bush's administration.

Sharon is almost as "obsessed" with building more settlements in the territories as Netanyahu is obsessed with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Nir said. And the effect of Likud's settlement policy on peace talks is one of the crucial issues Israel now faces.

In addition, Nir said, many Palestinians view Likud "as Israel's equivalent of Hamas" — both entities are considered enemies of peace.

Still, none of the panelists was completely sure how Netanyahu's leadership will affect the peace process.

Barkan called the Likud leader "a very responsible person" and a "smart and calculated politician." The new prime minister will continue the peace process at the very least because he wants to maintain good relations with the United States, Barkan said.

But Netanyahu essentially ran against PLO chief Yasser Arafat and attacked Peres for being close to the Palestinian leader, Brinner noted. It is difficult to imagine Netanyahu and Arafat sitting down together to negotiate anything substantial, he said.

Cautioning against any sweeping judgments regarding the next stage of the peace process, Nir said the new prime minister might be less hawkish once in office.

"Bravado and tough talk might very well give way to reason and moderation," he said.

Nonetheless, Nir added, Netanyahu's government definitely will slow the final status negotiations with the Palestinians over the West Bank and Gaza.

"I doubt we'll see any breakthrough or real results," Nir said.

Nir also expects Netanyahu to retain the status quo in the territories because it gives Palestinians some autonomy without sacrificing Jewish settlements.

If the new government doesn't send troops into areas under Palestinian control, Nir said, the Palestinians may be willing to ignore more hardline policies in the short term.

And Nir dismissed the possibility of a renewed intifada in reaction to Netanyahu's tougher stance.

"I don't think the Palestinians have the resources, psychologically or otherwise, to do so," he said.

On the Syrian track, Nir predicted no serious repercussions from the elections because talks have already been stalled.

Barkan remained optimistic regarding Netanyahu, but his predictions were darker regarding the 72-year-old Peres' political future.

"He's finished," Barkan said.

The demise of Peres' career also has quashed any hopes that Yitzhak Rabin's death would create a new national unity.

"It's quite evident now," Nir said. "The belief that Rabin's legacy will be enshrined as a result of his assassination was proved to be wrong."