Figures in a London Fog

By: 
Yacov Ben Efrat

Under the sponsorship of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, and Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, came to London on the 4th of May for a summit with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. They refrained from meeting each other. It has been a long time, in fact, since Arafat and Netanyahu have sat face to face. The mutual avoidance reflects differences over the implementation of the interim Oslo agreement, which was re-affirmed in the Hebron agreement of January 1977. These accords called for three Israeli redeployments in the West Bank, prior to the final arrangement, although they did not specify the amounts of land. They also called for Palestinian measures to guarantee Israel's security.

Leading up to the London meetings, Arafat had extensive talks with American envoy Dennis Ross and Vice President Al Gore. He kept Egyptian President Husni Mubarak informed every step of the way. On Wednesday, April 29, he announced his acceptance of an American proposal for a second Israeli redeployment of 13.1%. This was quite a comedown from the 30% that Shimon Peres (according to Arafat) had promised at the time of the interim agreement. The PA chief made the concession with Egyptian Foreign Minister Amru Musa standing beside him. Clearly, he wanted the Egyptian aegis. In thus lowering his sights, Arafat was accepting an American argument: it was wiser, at this stage, to push Netanyahu into a corner by accepting the U.S. plan. If the London conference failed, then the responsibility would be squarely on Israel's side. But Arafat did not stop there.

To show his good intentions, he ordered a crackdown on the Hamas leadership, jailing Abed el-Aziz Rentisi and others. In this way he pre-empted the usual Israeli excuses: that he is not living up to his part of the bargain, i.e., not fighting terrorism. By the time he arrived in London, therefore, he had nothing left to do but await the results of the talks between Albright and Netanyahu. On the Americans he made only one demand: if the Israelis still refused to budge, the U.S. should make its proposal public, bringing all its pressure to bear.

After Arafat lowered his expectations from 30% to the American 13.1, Netanyahu made a move of his own. He told Al Gore he was willing to increase his offer from 9% up to 11. Albright's task in London, therefore, seemed deceptively easy: to bridge a 2% gap. It has not been easy. The real difficulty does not lie in percentage points. Where then? Netanyahu faces elections in the year 2000: that would explain the dynamics behind these London talks. His real concern is not with the interim agreement, but rather with the final one, which is due by the end of 1999. He wants to go to the voters with that agreement in hand. He wants to be able to say, "See, I have brought you peace, but on our terms: peace with security." Arafat's interest, he knows, is the opposite: to make Netanyahu appear, at election time, as the Israeli leader who cannot make peace. Arafat wants and needs the second redeployment, but then he will hang tough in the final-status talks, hoping for a change of government.

The whole Israeli strategy has been to derail this scenario. Netanyahu has been conditioning the second redeployment, therefore, on Palestinian acceptance of his "general framework" for the final-status talks. He wants to get the whole thing settled soon, so that Arafat will have nothing to hang tough about. Netanyahu wants to reach an understanding with the Americans too about the final arrangement. He remembers very well how the Bush administration pressured the Shamir government on the eve of the 1992 elections, helping to bring it down. Indeed, his fears would appear to be well-founded. While Albright shuttled back and forth in London, Bush's former Secretary of State, James Baker, called for pressure on Netanyahu like that which Bush and he himself had put on Shamir.

Netanyahu is also worried about Arafat's threat to declare a Palestinian State unilaterally. This would explode the whole framework of the Oslo agreement, creating a new, unpredictable, and dangerous reality. Israelis might then blame their recalcitrant leader, opting to bring Labor – and its version of Oslo – back. "Final status now! No second redeployment until we can see where the whole thing is going!" That has been the thrust of Israeli strategy for some time, and there is little question but that the shape of the final arrangement is the real topic under discussion in London. The strategy would appear to be working. On Saturday, May 2, before his departure, Arafat made some surprising comments in Ramallah to visitors from the New York-based Council for Foreign Affairs. Asked how he sees the final arrangement, he replied: "There are many ideas: for example, the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement." (See Challenge #s 36 and 38). Until now the PA had refused to acknowledge the existence of this document, which leaves most of the Jewish settlements in place under Israeli sovereignty, but whose most egregious feature is this: it solves the problem of Jerusalem by taking the Arabic name for the latter, Al Quds, and applying it to a nearby desert village called Abu Dis. Arafat's stunned listeners asked him, therefore, if he thought it possible to reach an agreement about Jerusalem. "Absolutely!" he answered. "It is possible to accept the idea of Abu Dis, which belonged to Al Quds as well under the Jordanian regime."

What is the logic behind Arafat's amazing flexibility? For one thing, he knows he is nothing without the Americans. For another, he needs to show progress to his people – he needs, as said, the second redeployment. There is no guarantee that Labor will win in the year 2000. And suppose that it does? Given the political atmosphere in Israel, Labor will not go farther, Arafat knows, than it did in the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement. The real question, however, is not what Arafat says, but rather what the Americans do. For their own strategic reasons, they do not want to spoil their relations with Israel. The country remains the cornerstone of their policy in the area, as shown by the massive military aid that Secretary of Defense William Cohen recently promised.

Yet the U.S. also needs an Arab "umbrella," such as it enjoyed during the Gulf War. The most recent crisis with Iraq showed the Americans that their position in the region has been weakened. Russia and France are competing for influence. Public opinion in the Arab countries is unwilling to accept a double standard, allowing Israel to evade its commitments while continuing to punish Iraq. The ongoing confrontation with Saddam Hussein impels the U.S., therefore, to resolve the present conflict between Netanyahu and Arafat. The matter boils down, then, to the question, Which of the two needs America more? Here, at least, the answer is easy: Both need America, but Arafat needs America more.