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With time running out, Israel needs a leader who wants peace

PARIS - Nelson Mandela's release in South Africa puts one more of the world's major conflicts on the road that could lead to resolution, but in the Middle East, the big one, the stubborn, agonizing and arrogant conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, only gets worse. A few days after Mandela walked free after 27 years in prison, events in Israel were conspiring to put peace further away then ever.

The split in the right-wing Likud Party this week may have guaranteed that those capable of making peace for Israel will continue their refusal to sit down with those capable of making peace for the Palestinians.

Having been present at the United Nations for Israel's birth and in South Africa when Mandela was imprisoned, I watch both conflicts with a mixture of hope and foreboding.

More conciliatory than the Likud, the Israeli Labor Party is willing to accept some sharing of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian territories not already incorporated into Israel. But Labor's leaders have inspired no confidence that they will be able to lead the party back to power in the foreseeable future.

For several years, only the Likud has been strong enough to take Israel into negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). While the very idea is still anathema, just below the circle of older Likud leaders are several younger men whose abilities and comportment hold out hope that they might, once in power in the right time and circumstances, come to the table.

Likud Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir is no softy. But even he has offered Palestinian elections (safely insulated against territorial compromise, he insists) that might in fact be a step toward a future settlement. Off and on, Secretary of State James Baker has been trying to get talks about elections started with Palestinians both Shamir and the PLO could accept.

But while Shamir feels safe enough to thumb his nose at any American administration that comes along, he is not strong enough to ignore the zealotry symbolized by Ariel Sharon, who this week walked out of the Cabinet and seized control of a Likud central committee meeting with the same lightning boldness that once made him an inspired military field commander.

In the confusion that has followed, Israelis are of two minds about the result. One is that rid of Sharon, Shamir will be more able to accept the latest American proposal for talks with some Palestinians.

The other is that having to look over his shoulder at Sharon and what he represents, Shamir is less likely to say yes to anything, or be able to speak with unassailed authority for Israel.

What's going on, of course, is also a struggle for power. The polls indicate Sharon may well have overreached in trying to seize it for himself. But he also made compromise harder. In societies under such pressure, power often flows to the extremes, which now may be the danger in Israel, where the harder-liners threaten to overshadow Shamir just as Shamir and former Prime Minister Menachem Begin overshadowed this generation of Labor leaders.

For years, this is what happened among the white Afrikaners of South Africa. There, President Frederik de Klerk now seems to have broken the vicious movement toward civil war and suicide. In Mandela, he may also have found an African leader with the strength and vision to make peace for the black South Africans.

Inevitably, someone will question the comparative stature and character of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who has been blackened not only by some of his own actions but by years of insidious propaganda. Arafat may not be the kind of man everybody would invite for dinner, but he has survived as the symbol of Palestinian nationalism and in December 1989 had the vision and summoned the courage to utter the magic words recognizing Israel.

For that ultimate Palestinian card, he has received little. Nor does time work in favor of a peaceful settlement. The intifada uprising has turned radical and violent. Israeli hard-liners seem to take hope in the influx of Jews from the Soviet Union, Jews who would then be settled on the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip.

So far, there has been more smoke than fire about Russian Jews on the West Bank, but if and when it happens, American money will finance it, American protests and Israeli denials notwithstanding. The thing about money is that it is fungible. Given for one purpose, it releases other money for another. It flows where it is needed.

In South Africa, the Afrikaners seem at last to have put up a leader with both the strength and vision to make peace. In Israel, no such leader has appeared. Strong leaders there have been, but none at the right time to grasp the opportunity that may not be there for much longer.