With only a week left before he arrives in Washington for his first talks with the Bush administration, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has little time to find alternatives that will convince the Bush administration Israel can negotiate with someone other than the PLO.
To compound his problems, he is losing his united front in Israel and abroad against sitting down with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, which is outlawed in the Jewish state.As Shamir gathered hundreds of world Jewish leaders last week for a well-orchestrated "solidarity with Israel" pep rally in Jerusalem, a top-level military intelligence analysis surfaced rejecting his tough opposition to the PLO.
The analysis said the very thing Shamir did not want to hear. The shunned PLO, the report maintained, had become moderate and inevitably would be part of any Middle East peace settlement.
With the United States, Israel's chief ally, talking to the PLO and the Soviet Union entering the Middle East negotiating game, time may be running against Shamir. His tactic since re-election four months ago has been to turn aside policy questions on the Palestinian issue by saying his now not-so-new government is working on new peace initiatives.
Shamir's repetition of his "new ideas" theme - a rehash of the 11-year-old Camp David peace accords - has become almost comical, even to him. "Of course I will take many initiatives (to Washington), many proposals, many ideas," Shamir recently told reporters, who broke out in laughter along with him at the well-worn phrases.
Shamir believes, however, that victories by his right-wing Likud Party in national and local elections over the last four months demonstrate Israeli support for his anti-PLO stance.
He has called peace activists supporting an independent Palestinian state extremely dangerous. Shamir thinks Israelis "border on treason," The Jerusalem Post said in an editorial, when they voice "open dissent from his maximalist program of no land whatever for peace, and no dialogue ever with any kind of PLO."
In an apparent attempt to show Shamir is not so intransigent, his aides say he met recently with Palestinians in the territories, even though they are PLO sympathizers. Palestinians have called for an end to such talks, saying they give Shamir ammunition to keep fending off direct talks with the PLO.
But the reality of the changing Middle East scene is that Israel's closest ally - despite protests from Shamir's government - is talking with the PLO. And Shamir's partner in the shaky ruling coalition, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, is once more talking about ideas for a settlement that Shamir might find difficult to swallow.
Peres is careful to explain that the Israeli government - at least for now - speaks with only one voice.
"I would like to allow Mr. Shamir to travel to the United States under the most comfortable conditions possible," Peres said.
Perhaps Peres is waiting until Shamir returns to determine if the prime minister has failed. Again showing political restraint, Peres and his aides brush off questions about whether Labor will pull out of the government if they perceive a stalemate in peace negotiations.
But hints abound, with Peres noting in a recent speech that he might have to re-evaluate the situation after Shamir returns.