Benyamin Netanyahu's election as Israel's prime minister on May 29 was greeted by a great international gnashing of teeth. Dismayed hordes of experts and pundits charged that, efforts at rhetorical placation notwithstanding, the Netanyahu government would thoroughly befoul the peace process and touch off retrograde motion in every dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict in consequence.
Well maybe, maybe not. Lost amid the bewailing is a critical fact: Netanyahu's election reflects an already existing crisis, that being the anemic record of Palestinian autonomy, the experiment in limited Palestinian self-government conceived at Camp David in September 1978 and attempted after the Rabin-Arafat handshake of September 1993. On balance, autonomy has failed to deliver the goods: security and a sense of genuine Arab acceptance for Israelis; economic relief and restored honor for Palestinians. Israel's Jewish electorate reacted unmistakably to autonomy's failure, voting 55 percent for Netanyahu. From the looks of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) much reduced popularity, the Palestinian electorate would react similarly were an opportunity to do so at hand.
As a form of diplomatic art, autonomy is a good idea: The parties cannot agree to more, yet a majority in both communities is sufficiently dissatisfied with the status quo to settle for less. But if autonomy is not made to work as advertised, the peace process cannot proceed. To that end, the local parties, and the United States too, must beware of getting dizzy in the rarified air of Israeli-Palestinian final status questions, or of falling for the fool's gold of "real peace" between Israel and Syria. Old business before new.