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Visions of Israel after the conflict

ISRAEL'S MULTIPARTY SYSTEM makes interpreting election results a thankless task, but in last week's parliamentary elections, two resounding messages emerged: Israelis want to step back from both territorial expansionism and social neglect. Actually, the two are linked -- money invested in settlements doesn't go to education, health, or pensions.

Many Israelis seemed to vote for their vision of what a postconflict society should look like. The big surprise was the new pensioners' party winning seven seats in a protest vote from young Israelis, while large parties, such as Amir Peretz's Labor, also campaigned primarily on a domestic agenda of social inclusion.

The election results partly suggest that further territorial evacuation has been pocketed as a given, but they also reflect socioeconomic concerns and an element of escapism. Israeli society is not yet in a postconflict place, but it might be looking more soberly, willingly, and resignedly at the steps necessary to get there.

When Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared his Convergence Plan, his opponents in the Likud party and far right responded that the election had become a referendum on the evacuation of the West Bank. They lost that referendum. There is a clear Knesset majority for serious territorial compromise. Occupation is beginning to be fingered as the national malaise. With the public and the leadership unusually in unison in saying ''get us out of there," everything now depends on how it is done and where the new line is drawn.

In his victory speech, Olmert reached out to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and described a negotiated peace agreement as ''Israel's best and most stable alternative," mentioning unilateralism only as a fallback. Abbas has long advocated peace negotiations, but he and Hamas are in a cohabitation government, and despite some moderate noises from their internal leadership and their adherence to a ceasefire, Hamas is still some ways away from climbing onboard the permanent and unequivocal nonviolence train of the Irish Republican Army and the ETA. Combine this with a suspicion that Israel may want to maintain some territorial and other aspects of the occupation, and many suggest that unilateralism will be the preferred Olmert policy. This may be an accurate reading of intentions, but it would be a wrong-headed policy. An approach that consists only of barriers, separation, and unilateralism cannot deliver ongoing quiet.

This is where the US role should come into play. Any secure and stable border delineation will require broad local (Israeli and Palestinian), regional, and international legitimacy and acceptance. Given their respective starting points, Israeli and Palestinian positions can possibly be bridged. This would likely require committed US engagement.

Two questions arise: Will the administration go for it and will the way this issue plays out in domestic US politics allow it to happen?

Those advocating that President Bush make good on his 2002 commitment to a two-state solution, and who understand that an agreed resolution of the conflict dramatically improves US prospects for realizing regional strategic goals and removes a rallying cry from extremists, must carry the day.

Domestically, a recent Harvard Kennedy School of Government research paper by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer suggested that the ''pro-Israel Lobby" is the prime driver of US foreign policy in the region. Their argument, strong in substance but lacking in nuance and overdosing on polemic, is that the Israel lobby (and mainly AIPAC) goes largely unchallenged in defining the debate both in Washington and in the public at large -- with intimidation tactics featuring prominently.

Yet, to the extent to which this phenomenon exists, the Israeli election results suggest the antidote. AIPAC has too much allowed itself to be an echo chamber for the Likud, now only Israel's fifth party by size, with a puny 11 seats. The pro-Israel position in the United States needs to start approximating more closely just where the debate is in Israel. Israel seems to be waking up to the devastating effect that occupation has on its moral fiber and national security interests. Those in the United States who claim to speak in the name of Israel's good should also turn that page. Mainstream organizations like Israel Policy Forum and the Union for Reform Judaism are already there and should be listened to more closely.

This would allow the US government to play the role of Israel's older brother -- close always, nudging when needed -- but not its bodyguard. It is that older brother that Israel could do with right now.

Daniel Levy served as a policy adviser in the Israeli prime minister's office. He was the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.

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