Billy and Bibi: A Little Friendly Arm-wrestling

Yacov Ben Efrat

Relations between the Israeli government and the White House are going through some very rough times. In Washington the Israeli Prime Minister is virtually persona non grata. The American president cannot spare forty-five minutes from his busy agenda to meet him. Netanyahu was planning to attend the annual meeting of the Jewish Federation scheduled for November in Indianapolis, and it is customary for the Israeli Prime Minister to stop in for a visit with the American president on such occasions. But Clinton sees little point in granting Netanyahu a reception just to exchange pleasantries – and during these troubled times, little else is likely to result.

The Americans are worried. The negotiations seem dangerously stuck. Netanyahu is preoccupied with setting fires and putting them out. His only talent, it appears, is to turn old friends into enemies. Yet little more than a year remains in which to finalize the peace process. By 1999, according to the Oslo principles, the division of territory and authority between Israel and the PA is supposed to be resolved. After reading the map of power relations within Israel, however, the Americans have concluded that in 1999 Netanyahu will likely still be in power. Given this probability, they have decided to try to tame him, rather than merely make gestures of good will.

Israeli president Ezer Weizman, for instance, was warmly welcomed in the White House in mid-October. As a participant in the original Camp David negotiations, Weizman adheres to the belief that the Americans must "trap" the negotiating partners and not let them leave until "white smoke" emerges. He proposed, therefore, that Clinton conduct a new summit based on the model of the one held twenty years ago. While the Americans did not dismiss Weizman's proposal out-of-hand, their mistrust of Netanyahu runs so deep that they could not accept it with enthusiasm.

The U.S. administration, meanwhile, continues to tolerate tough talk from its Arab proxies. The normalizing of relations with Israel appears to be in regression. King Hassan of Morocco, who hosted the first regional economic meeting in Casablanca in 1994, has frozen all ties with Israel until "some progress in the peace process is seen." These were the words of Andre Azulai, a high ranking advisor to the Moroccan king, who attended the opening of Peres's Institute of Peace in late October. Now a fourth economic summit is scheduled for November 16 in Doha, Qatar. It will be a test of the Arab states' willingness to integrate Israel into their regional economies. So far seven of them are planning to stay away. Egypt has conditioned its attendance on an unequivocal Israeli declaration halting the expansion of settlements.

The new American chorus resonates in the mouth of Israel's Foreign Minister, David Levy, who harbors resentment against Netanyahu for keeping him out of the decision-making circle. On October 24 he gave an interview to Israel Television. Here he bluntly stated that unless he knows the parameters of Israel's conditions and its openness to concessions, he sees no point in going to Washington to meet his Palestinian counterpart, Abu Mazen. For the first time in public, Levi exposed Netanyahu's non-position (itself a kind of position). As a result, the kitchen cabinet assembled. It decided to give Levi the following limited mandate: Israel would freeze the expansion of settlements for six months (except in the area it defines as "Jerusalem"), on condition that the two sides skip the second stage of Israeli re-deployment and proceed directly to the final status talks. The ministers also empowered Levi to talk about various smaller issues, such as the airport in Gaza, in order to give an appearance of cooperation in the American endeavor.

But does Netanyahu really lack a position? Trapped in a right-wing coalition, he does not have a parliamentary majority either for freezing the settlements or for carrying out the second re-deployment. His only withdrawal thus far has been from part of Hebron. Last spring, to be sure, the government decided to define its second re-deployment as a withdrawal from 2% of Area C (the part under exclusive Israeli control).The decision aroused Palestinian ire. Yet even this meager re-deployment never took place. Since then, in the light of staunch domestic opposition to further concessions, Netanyahu has decided to halt the interim measures and go directly to the final status negotiations. His unwillingness to give up anything, along with unilateral decisions like the building of a settlement on Har Homa, have frozen the Oslo process.

Netanyahu's idea is to get the Palestinians to accept his parameters: they will get 55% of the West Bank while leaving Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty and the settlements intact. In that case he will not encounter any domestic difficulty in re-deploying. He will be able to portray the truncated quasi-state as an expanded autonomy or a kind of protectorate – which in fact is what it will be.

Such a Bantustan is not far removed from what American wants. Current strife between the U.S. administration and the Israeli government centers on the tactics and not on the substance of things. The Americans support the traditional Zionist position that denies Palestinian statehood. They understand, however, that if the Palestinians are asked to make such crucial concessions, Israel in turn should undertake a minimal effort to comply with what it has signed, if only to let Arafat bolster his shaky reputation.

If a new "Camp David" is ever convened, it will be quite different from its predecessor. It will not deal with the main issues that concern rank-in-file Palestinians: settlements, Jerusalem, the refugees, and natural resources. These topics were foreclosed years ago in Oslo. The main bone of contention today between Arafat and Netanyahu is the amount of land to be handed over, not the kind of power the Palestinian Authority will ultimately get. Outwardly Arafat demands that Israel comply with the promises of Shimon Peres, who committed himself verbally to deliver 90% of the Territories. The American role at this point, it would seem, is to play the honest broker and cut the cake at some point between 55 and 90, but that will not alter the situation dramatically. It will only lend the present gloom a sheen of permanence. In the last Camp David agreement, Egypt regained all its territory, but at the cost of severing ties with the Arab world and enslaving itself to the International Monetary Fund. In a second Camp David, the Palestinians will relinquish their right of return and their independence. They too will find themselves enslaved.

Edited by: Lital levi