Israel's election for (or against) peace New system: The nation's first direct vote for prime minister.


RARELY HAS THE ISSUE so clear-cut -- the peace process versus confrontation -- as in Israel's election on Wednesday.

A victory for Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the Labor Party would vindicate the accord with the PLO, support negotiations on the Palestinian Authority's permanent status and promote the dialogue with Syria. A victory for Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party would repudiate the trust in the PLO, nip final status negotiations in the bud and snub Syria. A victory for either man and the other's party would sow confusion.

For the first time, Israelis will vote directly for prime minister, not leaving the choice to parliamentary deal-making. This is really a presidential system, never mind that Israel already has a ceremonial president. Israelis will also vote, as always, for the party to represent them in the Knesset.

All Israel is a single district, with parties assigned seats proportional to their vote -- a simple formula that often produces complex and indecisive results. A reform enacted in 1992 grafts the presidential dimension onto the parliamentary system. No one can anticipate how it will work. Could Israelis simultaneously elect a hawkish prime minister and dovish parliament? (Could Americans elect a Democratic president and Republican Congress?)

Every Arab leader has a stake in the outcome but only counter-productive influence. This democracy is the model visible to Palestinians building their own institutions and provides the chief obstacle to the great-man pretensions of Yasser Arafat. The U.S. is deeply committed to Mr. Peres but must live with any result. The spiritual head of Hamas terrorists from an Israeli prison urges a cessation of violence in order to get Mr. Arafat's Palestinian police off the backs of his followers.

The key to the vote is two minorities, the fifth of Israelis who are Arabs and the tenth who are recent Russian immigrants. Most Arabs vote for left-wing parties that support the Peres option. Russians are divided between special interest small parties and the two large ones.

Had there been no Hamas and Hezbollah terrorism designed to thwart peace and help the intransigents, Mr. Peres would be the hands-down favorite. Israelis want peace when they think it works. When there is terrorism, they demand strength.

A Peres and Labor victory could lead to a more peaceful world. A Netanyahu and Likud victory would define peace as desirable but unobtainable. Democracy promises choices, not easy choices.

Pub Date: 5/24/96

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