Editorial: Total Surrender or Total War

Israelis and Palestinians eat Crisis for breakfast, Scandal for lunch, and Disaster for dinner. There are usually leftovers, plus something new. Oslo has trapped Arafat in an ever exploding situation, while Netanyahu, it seems, does not feel alive unless someone is angry at him. Barely out of the Bar-On scandal, he seemed to be taking a breather, publishing his version of what the final-status agreement ought to look like. The momentary quiet apparently got on his nerves, for he turned around and forced Treasury Secretary Dan Meridor out of the government. Meridor, considered his most honest and decent minister, had failed to support him during the Bar-On affair, and this was Bibi's putsch-like revenge. The ouster was a warning to anyone who might be inclined to think independently in the presence of the greenhorn leader.

The Netanyahu government is now almost free of the Likud old guard and its princes. (Meridor followed Benny Begin, who had resigned after the Hebron agreement.) Veteran party leaders including Yitzhak Shamir and Moshe Arens, once Bibi's patron, have declared they would not vote for him again. There are hints of a new party forming, which would be led by clean Likud moderates like Meridor and Roni Millo (present mayor of Tel Aviv).

We wait to see who will be on the menu tomorrow.

In Arafat's camp things are not any better. The negotiations are stuck, and the Egyptian (i.e. American) initiative likewise. Israel creates facts on the ground, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) caves in. The PA makes a great show of its outrage over the building of a Jewish settlement on Har Homa, but it strangely neglects the much bigger and even more dangerous annexation of 12,000 dunams (3000 acres) to the Adumim settlements. (See in this issue, 'The New Jerusalem: Final Cut,' by Michal Schwartz).

The situation remains explosive, as Israel's security chiefs keep warning. Demonstrations in the Gaza Strip and Hebron quickly get out of hand. Arafat's popularity has plummeted so low that he has postponed municipal elections indefinitely. On the question of land, it is now clear that the Oslo agreement implies, in principle, the surrender of huge tracts. In an attempt to deflect attention from this fact, and to show how important the homeland is to him, Arafat has ordered the unofficial killing of Palestinian land dealers who have mediated sales to Jews. A democratic state, or an entity with honest pretensions to the same, would put people on trial rather than murder them in back alleys. Such gangland-style killings send a message to the population: keep your mouth shut, don't stick your neck out. It's land sales today, but what might it be tomorrow?

There is, however, one flaw in our reasoning. The PA could not bring land dealers to trial. The Palestinian National Council would have to pass a law against sales to Jews. But according to Oslo, the Council's legislation must be approved by Israel's Civil Administration, which has already labelled such a law as "racist." Racist it may be, indeed. In Israel, ever since the founding of the State, lands under the control of the Jewish National Fund may not legally be sold to non-Jews.

There is at least one more reason why Arafat may prefer to kill the land dealers unofficially. It is alleged that some of his own ministers, Jamil Tarifi, for instance, have land and building deals with Israelis. If the executions were official, he would have to kill them too.

The US Congress has also, of late, damaged Arafat's credibility with his people. He often implies that he had a deeper strategy in signing the Oslo accords: Only the US can get Israel to move, and through Oslo the Palestinians have a claim on the US, which will bring pressure on Israel to fulfil the agreement in letter and spirit. On June 11, however, the US Congress decided (406 in favor, 17 against) to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's united capital and to release $100 million for moving the embassy to the Holy City. It remains to be seen whether President Clinton will veto the measure. In any event, coming just before negotiations on the final status, such an overwhelming majority amounts to a slap in the face for all Palestinians. The message is old and clear: Israel may keep building settlements and violating Palestinian rights; at the end of the day Big Daddy will be there. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, all trust in Oslo has been breached. People again feel they have nothing to lose.

Four years after the historic handshake, the Oslo agreement is finally unveiled for what it always has been: a deadly trap. Now the Palestinians must choose between two reprehensible alternatives: total surrender or total war. If the latter course is taken, it will not be Arafat at the head, but a new leadership which has learned the lessons of this unhappy accord. How long it may take for the die to fall, no one can say. The situation remains uncertain, volatile, grim.