A remarkable political transposition takes place today in Israel: The prime minister and the foreign minister are changing jobs. This event is all the more unusual because the two men — Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir — lead Israel's major political blocs, the Labor Alignment and the Likud. Perhaps the most surprising feature of this rotation is that, with regard to relations with the Arabs at least, not much will change.
This possibly unique political arrangement resulted from the June 1984 elections, when Labor and Likud received a nearly equal number of votes. Desperate to form a government and afraid of new elections, they joined in a cold embrace and agreed to exchange the two top posts midway through the term. Given the bitter ideological differences between these two parties, few observers expected the attempt to share power to last more than a few months, yet it has. Why?
In part it endures because divisions within the Likud bloc. Shamir's position as party leader depends on his maintaining the existing arrangement with Labor. Were the government to break down, the rivalry among him, David Levy, Ariel Sharon, and Moshe Arens would probably lead to his replacement and the almost certain end of his political career. To keep the coalition in place, Shamir became a man who could not be insulted. He let the finance minister lose his job and twice forced Sharon to apologize publicly to Peres — anything to keep his arrangement with Peres alive.
As for Labor, it too benefits from the coalition. Working with Likud enhances its reputation among Likud's supporters; some of these, it is thought, will vote Labor when elections are next held. Most important, Peres has used the prime ministry to great advantage. He restored a modicum of economic stability, withdrew Israeli troops from Lebanon, made several initiatives with Jordan, virtually settled the Taba issue, held summits with the king of Morocco and the president of Egypt, established diplomatic relations with Spain and several African countries and improved ties with the United States. These efforts transformed Peres from a colorless politico into an acknowledged statesman. Bringing down the coalition government would undermined Peres' new stature.
Looking to the future, it appears likely that the past patterns of the Israeli political Janus will continue without much change. The crucial point is that the Likud generally approves of the status quo; with the exception of establishing more Jewish settlements on the West Bank, it has few political initiatives to offer. The Likud welcomes the occupied territories' slow absorption into Israel.
In contrast, Labor leaders want change, and they realize that only bold leadership can reverse the trend to absorb the West Bank. Their vision of Israel's future is incompatible with permanent rule over nearly two million Arabs, which they see as eroding either the Jewish or the democratic character of Israel. Thus, Labor politicians want to end Israeli control over most of the territories won in 1967, preferably by coming to terms with King Hussein of Jordan. They also realize that unless the public can be convinced of this, their party may lose many elections ahead.
For these reasons it seems that the rotation will not make much difference. As long as the coalition endures, the Israeli government will continue to embody an ideological contradiction and Israeli diplomacy will continue to operate under severe constraints. What Peres tried to do from the prime minister's office he will continue to do as foreign minister. He has said many times that he does not intend to stop the search for peace after the rotation takes place. As for Shamir, he will continue his obstructionist role in a new position.
Only if the coalition disintegrates and then is followed by a Labor government without Likud might prospects for Israel's relations with the Arabs change. The coalition might fall if Shamir's rivals within Likud break the 1984 coalition agreement that permits no more than six new West Bank settlements.
Another way it could fall would be as a result of an Arab initiative. Oddly enough, Shamir has stated this publicly. On Sept. 16, he told a gathering of Likud activists that the coalition would collapse "if the Arab states were to propose territorial compromise and part of that government were to accept the proposal." This sounds like an inadvertent invitation to the king of Jordan to manipulate Israeli politics.
And King Hussein, despite his statements about Labor and Likud being alike, fully recognizes their differences. If he so wishes, he can help Peres regain the prime minister's chair, this time without a Likud partner. Not for the first time the ball is in the king's court. Judging by his record, however, he will not take advantage of his power. Unless he does, it is unlikely that today's rotation will have much effect on Arab-Israeli relations.
Daniel Pipes is director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. Adam M. Garfinkle is political studies coordinator of the institute.