When Will He Leap?

Yacov Ben Efrat

Stately, plump Benjamin Netanyahu, replete in bathing costume, tensed one June morning on the edge of his pool preparing to dive. Then he stepped back. The politicians and pundits sighed, whether in disappointment or relief. But no, he was just warming up. Everybody waited for that fateful moment when he'd submit himself to the elements, and a million little peace drops would splash up around him. Yet again he backed off. The water, it seemed, was not quite right. Netanyahu's delay over a second redeployment in the West Bank, and particularly his latest trick - calling for a "referendum" on the matter - has stirred up anger even within his government. Two-thirds of his ruling coalition opposed the referendum, all for different reasons. Minister of Defense, Yitzhak Mordechai, who wants to get on with the redeployment, called it a "fraud." Finally the matter was dropped.

President Ezer Weizman, completely fed-up, announced his boycott of the Annual Economic Meeting in Zichron Ya'akov. He complained that Netanyahu had used him by asking him to go to Clinton, Mubarak and King Hussein and vouch for his pure intentions. "Luckily," Weizman confessed, "I didn't have time to make all the rounds, so I didn't make an utter fool of myself" (Ha'aretz, June 24). On June 29, the he upped the ante. In prime-time interviews on Israeli television, he declared that the national mood is bad, the economy in the pits, and the peace process stuck. And then, for the first time in Israel's history, its president called on the prime minister to hold new elections. One can't know whether it was himself he wanted to convince or others, but just a few weeks ago Netanyahu conducted a series of meetings. Among his interlocutors was Rabbi Shapira, the spiritual leader of the National Religious Party, an ultra-right coalition partner that opposes any kind of withdrawal. He met Ehud Barak, head of the Labor opposition, and President Weizman. He told them: "Boys, this time I really mean it". People remained skeptical, nonetheless. His right-wing friends, the settlers who brought him to power, were saying "He's not going to do this to us," and they threatened to bring down the government. Labor aired its traditional position: "Never believe a word of what this man says." The strange thing was, Netanyahu himself initiated the meetings. It seems he wanted to break the news personally. All heard from him that he accepted the American proposal, which stipulates a 13% withdrawal from the West Bank. They also heard and that he is very close to reaching an agreement with Arafat.

Why then would Netanyahu act so oddly? Why give the impression you're on the verge of an accord, then suddenly retreat, provoking the wrath of even the patient Americans? Why would the Israeli government decide just now, before the decisive plunge, to annex the settlements around Jerusalem? Why play around with the notion of a referendum on redeployment – instead of just doing it? As we have said many a time, though this be madness yet there's method in it. Here's how it works: Until very recently Netanyahu was proposing a redeployment from 9% of the West Bank. But the Americans put heavy pressure on him to accept what they see as a fair proposal:13%. So – after well nigh eighteen months of marathon meetings in Washington, London, Cairo, Gaza and Jerusalem – and understanding, at last, that he was up against a wall, Netanyahu decided to agree. But he still tried to divide the 13% into two categories. Nine would go to them, and 4% would be subject to an Israeli veto on Palestinian building. Another condition: Israel would decide unilaterally on the scope of the third and last redeployment before the final-status agreement. (Unofficially the talk was of 2% only.) That was where things got stuck. When Arafat agreed to the American proposal of 13%, it gave him a diplomatic advantage over Netanyahu. For the latter this was a problem. It was not good to appear to be at odds with America, so he did all he could to create a commotion, attempting to shift American pressure back to the Palestinian side. He revived his old accusations against them, claiming that they are too soft on their opposition. He chewed some more on the topic of re-abolishing the Palestinian National Charter. All this, so far, with no success. The problem for the Palestinians is this: if they accept a unilateral decision by Israel on the depth of redeployment in the third stage, they will wind up with a mere 2%. Where will that put them at the start of the final negotiations, whcih are supposed to end by May 1999?

Let us go back to the basics: The Oslo Agreement divides the West Bank into three parts: Area A under full Palestinian jurisdiction, including security; Area B, where the Israelis control security, but the Palestinians control civil matters; and Area C, which is wholly under Israeli jurisdiction. The situation today is as follows (rounding percentages): Area C includes 72% of the West Bank; Area B, 25%; and Area A, 3%. If redeployment takes place, the new arrangement will be as follows: of the 13% proposed under the American proposal, 12% of the West Bank will pass from Area C to B and 1% from C to A. But Area A will also get 14% of the West Bank from Area B. The bottom line: 18% of the West Bank will end up in Area A, 23% in B, and 59% in Area C (David Makovsky, Ha'aretz June 4). While negotiating the final-status, then, Israel will maintain its grip on the lion's share of the territory, including security control over the villages in Area B. This land will remain a means of pressure during negotiations on the final agreement. When Area B does finally go to the Palestinians, their land will amount to 41% of the West Bank. On this space Arafat will be allowed to establish his crippled Palestinian State. The remaining 59% will become part of the State of Israel. Almost all the settlements, as well as Jerusalem, will be under Israeli sovereignty – with a stamp of legitimacy from the Palestinian Authority and under American auspices.

The only weapon left to the Palestinians is to prevent the Likud from celebrating such an achievement. Why should they ensure Netanyahu's re-election by accepting this humiliating proposal? Arafat gets backing here from his Egyptian patron Hosni Mubarak. He also finds understanding among the Americans, who are clearly tired of the Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu knows that recent Palestinian obstinacy is not over principles. Arafat knows and Meretz leader Yossi Sarid has announced on television (20.6) that Rabin had been ready to give back no more than 52% of the land. Netanyahu has decided that if Arafat strives to prevent his re-election, rather than reach an agreement, he will put him under more pressure. That is the background for the recent land grab, the demolition of Palestinian houses, and the proposed expansion of the borders of Jerusalem. It is as if he were saying to Arafat: "You'd better hurry up, mister. Time is not on your side. By the time Labor comes to power, there won't be much left to negotiate about." The more serious problem facing Netanyahu at this time, however, is not Arafat but the US administration. The Americans have gone through some serious setbacks, and their credibility has been eroded. First there was the poor performance during the recent crisis with Iraq. Then they learned that economic sanctions would not prevent nuclear proliferation, as shown by the atomic crisis in Southern Asia. Lately they have recognized that they must use carrots, rather than sticks, to prevent Iran and Iraq from going nuclear. They will try to ease hostilities and make room for economic relief. Automatic support for Israel – especially during the term of a right wing government – is damaging America's ability to stabilize the Middle East. The new American tone is taken seriously here. Netanyahu now fears that America's probes toward Iran will come at Israel's expense.

Lately, former Labor Party leader Shimon Peres renewed his call for a national unity government as the only way out of the stalemate. The Americans appear to favor such a solution. From their point of view, it would surely lead to an agreement with the Palestinians. Yet an accord that splits the West Bank 40-60, or even 50-50, will mean that the new Palestine will surely become the center of resistance – not only against Israel, but against the leadership that betrayed it.