Waiting for Rabin


The first-place finish of the Labor Party in Israel's election cheered most American Jews and friends of Israel. Not all, of course. It was disturbing to Israeli settlers in the West Bank. It was far from reassuring to all Arabs. But for many Americans, it was a return to the Israel in which they believed.

The Labor Party, by the choice of Israelis, governed Israel from the country's birth in 1948 until the party's defeat in 1977. It created the social democratic institutions of the state. It shaped the values of the nation, with a firm commitment to the Jewish ethical tradition but not necessarily to strict ritualistic observance. It created the foreign and defense policies in which many Jews took pride, extending friendship to all who would accept it, living in dignity with all so willing, yet fully capable of any self-defense required.

Many Americans were less comfortable with the Israel of the Likud Party, of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. They found it hard to defend the intransigence, or to claim that religion

requires land on which Muslim Arabs live to be Jewish. They had been proud of the defense role that came out of the Haganah militia of pre-independence days, less happy with the guerrilla and terrorist heritage of Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang, from which Mr. Begin and Mr. Shamir sprang.

Because of deep commitment to Israel, many American Jews tried with fellow Americans to justify post-1977 Israeli policies -- especially West Bank settlements -- while sending messages of anguish to Israel. Now it appears that Israel will soon have a government that believes as they do in its own security and its need for peace with neighbors in that security, but not in religious attachment to all the land.

And yet, the new Israeli government is not formed. Weeks are required for the deal-making and coalition-building. Mr. Rabin, the hawk who led the dovish party, is not entirely happy with his support. The Meretz bloc, logical junior partner, is too dovish for him. The possibility of relying on five Arab members of the Knesset for a majority is unacceptable. He is uncomfortable owing a vital cabinet post to his rival Shimon Peres. He might prefer a national unity coalition with Likud, but his party would not. Truth to tell, Mr. Rabin's previous prime ministry, 1974-77, was not distinguished.

The friends of Israel who are eager to see the U.S. extend the $10 billion in loan guarantees that President Bush first promised and then refused, hope Israel will quickly qualify. What General Rabin said during the campaign went most of the way, not all of it. He was the coalition defense minister who cracked down brutally on the Palestinian intifada, and on some issues he is closer to the Likud Party he has driven from power than to the dovish Meretz Party that may support him in it. American admirers of Mr. Rabin will have to exercise patience while he catches up to them.

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