After a six-month political truce enforced by a national unity government that has joined the Likud and Labor parties in shared policies, Israel's political leaders are gingerly resuming their national debate over the future of the country's relations with its Arab neighbors.
The coalition government has enabled Israel to impose austerity measures on a chaotic economy and to begin the withdrawal of its Army from the quagmire of Lebanon. Now, divisions over broader Middle East strategy are surfacing again because of an ambiguous Egyptian proposal to get talks started on the West Bank territory of the Jordan River.
Like a cloud passing across the surface of a lake, talk of new peace initiatives and the unlikely prospect of Jordan's King Hussein suddenly agreeing to territorial negotiations with Israel have sent fleeting shadows across the unity painstakingly developed by Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir on other matters.
"Lebanon was not an ideological problem," Shamir observed during an interview in which he praised the responsibility-sharing aspects of the coalition government. "Judea and Samaria is an ideological problem" between Labor and Likud that could threaten the coalition, he added, using the biblical names for the territory preferred by Likud leaders.
Likud "would never accept that we embark on a search for territorial compromise" with Hussein if Hussein were to put forward such a proposal, said David Levy, the Moroccan-born minister of housing who is seen by many as Shamir's successor as head of Likud. "We are working together well now, but there are unrealistic things that would cause the government to fall."
Interviews with Levy, Shamir and other senior Israeli political leaders suggest that Israel approaches the sixth anniversary of the Camp David peace accord, and the end of its military involvement in Lebanon, in a mood of disappointment and disillusionment with the country's ability to transform the attitudes of its Arab neighbors either through peace or war.
That frustration in turn translates into declining interest in exploring the prospects for any new exchanges of territory for peace agreements of any sort with Arab countries, the interviews suggest.
Camp David, in this view, produced only a "cold peace" with Egypt instead of the full range of relations that Israel was promised in return for giving back all Egyptian territory conquered in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. That frustration appears to extend into Peres' Labor Party, which is nominally committed to negotiate with Hussein to return part of the West Bank in return for peace, and is producing new support within Labor for political arrangements with Hussein that exclude giving up territory.
"It could be that we have to come to an understanding on sharing" jurisdiction on the West Bank and Gaza, said Ezer Weizman, Peres' informal adviser on Arab affairs and minister without portfolio in the coalition government. "Today you have to say that the autonomy plan for the West Bank" designed by then prime minister Menachem Begin in 1979 "was a good beginning . . . and the final result may be something in between autonomy and a territorial concept."
For many Israelis, Weizman indicated, another approaching anniversary may be at least as important as the March 26, 1979, signing of the Camp David accord on the White House lawn.
"Next year we will have been on the West Bank for 19 years," he said. "That is exactly the same time that Hussein was on the West Bank." Jordan took control of the territory, which had been part of the mandated territory of Palestine, during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Moreover, the growing sense of permanence that the Israeli presence on the West Bank inspires today and the pattern of settlement there during the past two years strongly suggest that the West Bank already may have slipped beyond Hussein's grasp.
The view from Levy's spacious third-floor office illustrates the passage of time and its effect on Arab-Israeli relations here as well as a history book might. Bright winter sunlight ripples into one window from the western slope of the Mount of Olives, where a single camel is tethered near the summit.
In the opposite direction, out on the mountain ridges descending toward the Jordan valley from the heights of Jerusalem, rise wave after wave of recently built apartment houses and dormitories. The complex of office buildings where Levy's ministry is located in what had been an Arab section of Jerusalem is a definitive statement in stone and concrete about the Israeli government's intentions here.
"Hussein likes to live," Levy said in an idiomatic French laced with irony and nuance, "and he knows he cannot afford to give up a half, or a fourth, of Judea and Samaria. And neither will Israel share like that, not one half, not one fourth. We have to talk about political sharing, about autonomy for the people who live there, but not about territory."
The passage of time since Begin got Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter to agree to center the first phase of negotiations about the Palestinian-inhabited territories on self-rule rather than on territory has had another paradoxical effect. Many members of Likud who initially were opposed to or unenthusiastic about the Camp David accord have become its strongest advocates.
"People who voted against Camp David are even more determined to make it work now than those who voted for it," said Moshe Arens, formerly defense minister and ambassador to Washington and now a minister without portfolio. As a Likud member of parliament, Arens voted to reject the peace agreement.
"We thought then that the price was too high," he said. "We are in the position of having paid the full price for the ticket, and we want to get to the destination we're supposed to reach."
Arens, Levy and Shamir insisted in separate interviews that the Camp David arrangements for autonomy talks between Israel and Jordan, with Palestinian participation, must form the next step in the peace process. Hussein has said that he will join peace talks only on the basis of the return of all of the territory occupied in 1967.
"If Hussein steps forward and says he wants to make a deal on the basis of territorial compromise, there will be serious problems" within the coalition, Arens predicted. "Likud will say we cannot do that," while Labor is bound by its previous position to explore such an offer.
At that point, Levy predicted, there would be a rupture in the coalition and new elections in which he would challenge Shamir for the party leadership. If Shamir were to falter, Levy undoubtedly would face challenges from Arens and Ariel Sharon, the minister for commerce who, as defense minister, led the Israeli Army into Lebanon in 1982.
It is the winding down of that war that has left Israelis perplexed about the utility of military power in trying to reshape Arab countries into more pliable partners.
Levy and Arens, for example, supported the initial invasion, which destroyed the Palestine Liberation Organization as a military force on Israel's border.
Now, both frankly admit to disillusionment about the final results of an operation that failed to implant Lebanon's Christian minority in firm control of the country and will have kept Israeli troops there for three years by the time the withdrawal is completed this summer.
"I came to recognize that the time had come to leave, that there is no viable partner there for Israel to work with," Levy said in explaining his decision in January to break ranks with his Likud colleagues and support the withdrawal plan drawn up by Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin. "I realized that any agreement, even if it is the best agreement, would not be worth the paper it was written on. There is no respect for anything in that country."
"Israel is a strong country, but a small country. Israel can win wars, but it is far more difficult to obtain political aims by war, since we cannot impose total defeat" on larger Arab countries, said Arens, who, as defense minister in the last Likud government, sought to reach security arrangements with Shiite villagers in southern Lebanon to enable Israeli troops to withdraw peacefully.
"The political change we sought in Lebanon did not work out . . . . I still find it very difficult to understand why our very serious efforts to come to terms with the Shiites did not succeed. We should be working together, but we can't."
Even more stinging judgments are voiced by those outside Likud. In a remarkable four-part series published last month in the Haaretz newspaper, military affairs commentator Ze'ev Schiff said of the Lebanese experience:
"We gained a military victory at a huge price, and we were defeated strategically . . . . Israel and the Lebanese Christians have been weakened. Syria has been strengthened, and Lebanon has become more Arab than it ever was."
The rising tide of assaults on the withdrawing Israeli troops and the harsh retaliatory raids the Israelis are staging against Shiite villages in the south have damped down much of the debate about the consequences of Lebanon and provided a strong impetus for unity within the coalition government.
"These tactics would have been impossible if they had not been undertaken by a national unity government," Shamir said in an apparent reference to the strong criticism by Labor of the siege of Beirut. "A government with a limited base would have been criticized in Israel.
Aides to Peres are quick to praise Shamir's constructive role in holding the coalition together thus far. After meeting separately with their Cabinet ministers, the two men confer in Peres' office or at his home on Friday afternoons to reach agreements that are ratified in the weekly Cabinet meetings on Sunday.
Under the agreement setting up the coalition government after inconclusive elections last summer, Shamir is due to succeed Peres as prime minister after 24 months. This would give Likud a strong advantage in setting up the elections that are scheduled to be held, under the agreement, two years after that.
Shamir appears to be suggesting in Likud circles that he may agree to step down then and allow Arens, Levy and Sharon to contest for the leadership of the next government.
Political analysts suggest that it would be in Peres' interest to engineer a breakup of the coalition before he has to yield power to Shamir and force new elections. Both leaders deny that they expect such a breakup, unless Hussein were to toss the coalition the hot potato of agreeing to direct negotiations.
This does not appear to be a serious probability at the moment. Beyond Hussein's reluctance to start such negotiations without guarantees that he will get the West Bank and East Jerusalem back stands the hardening sense in Israel that the greatly increased pace of Israeli settlement in Likud's seven years in power has overtaken whatever chance for meaningful territorial compromise may have existed.
The coalition has agreed to build six new settlements under the terms of the agreement but has taken no steps to do so. Peres' aides acknowledge that this is due primarily to a lack of money, but they hint that this should be seized on by the Arabs as a sign of Peres' willingness to seek peace through compromise.
But a study released this month by Meron Benvenisti's West Bank Data Base Project asserts that Likud built enough housing before leaving office to accommodate the likely flow of new settlers on the West Bank through 1986. The number of settlers doubled in the past two years and now stands at 42,600, who live in 114 settlements, according to Benvenisti's figures.
In that two-year period the new settlers tracked by the project went almost entirely into well-established, large settlements that Labor is unlikely to agree to include in any territorial negotiations. Nearly two-thirds of all settlers now live near the urban centers of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and form a powerful political constituency.
"Talk of the settlements withering away," Benvenisti told The Jerusalem Post last week, "is nonsense."