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THE ROAD FROM HEBRON

Benjamin Netanyahu's Subtle, Tenuous Achievement

11:00 PM, Feb 2, 1997 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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I


Yasser Arafat has now sold Israel the same rug a fourth time. In the Hebron agreements just signed with the Likud government of Israel, he has promised to change -- really, truly change this time -- the Palestine National Charter that calls for the destruction of Israel. The chronicle of this multiple sale -- a near-farcical tale of sleight of hand and gullibility -- is a microcosm of the Middle East peace process.


In September 1993, Arafat promised in a letter that was part of the original Oslo accords to change the charter. He didn't.


In the Oslo II accords of 1995 in which Israel took upon itself withdrawal from all the cities of the West Bank, he promised it again. He then did nothing.


In the run-up to the Israeli elections of May 1996, when Shimon Peres desperately needed to show Israelis that they had gotten something more for Oslo than blown-up buses, Arafat convened the Palestine National Council and got it to pass a resolution that the world hailed as a momentous change of the charter. A deluded (I prefer this adjective to the alternative, which is " cynical") Peres called it "the most important ideological change in this century."


It was, of course, nothing of the sort. In fact, it was nothing more than a restatement of Arafat's original pledge in his 1993 letter to change the charter in the future -- but without actually changing it. A committee was set up to report back with the changes in six months. The six months were up October 24, 1996. Silence.


And now, sale Number 4. With the Hebron accords, the "Note for the Record" drawn up by U.S. special Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross lists changing the charter as one of the commitments the Palestinians will be required to carry out under the Hebron Protocol.


That American document sets out three other items that the Palestinians have not carried out that they are now required to: extradition of terrorists and dismantling of the terrorist apparatus; reduction of their armed forces to the 18,000 agreed to in Oslo (they now have about 40,000 soldiers); and dismantling of offices outside of their territory (meaning their illegal offices in Jerusalem).


Is this not simply more of the same? Netanyahu campaigned on the promise not to destroy Oslo but to make it truly reciprocal. He promised to get something in return for Israel's myriad concessions. With Hebron, he may claim that he got reciprocity. But in fact what he got is yet another promise of reciprocity. Was Netanyahu, like his much-scorned predecessors, simply taken in? What did he really get?

 

II


In writing about the Israeli election in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, I suggested that, since reciprocity was the cornerstone of Netanyahu's peace platform, he might start by offering to fulfill the Hebron withdrawal in return for, say, a changed Palestinian charter. This would have been true reciprocity: a real move by the Palestinians in return for a real move by the Israelis.


For the first months of his administration, Netanyahu was indeed looking for something of the kind. He began by going slow on Hebron, trying to see what he could get in return. But this policy proved impossible for a simple reason: World reaction to Netanyahu's election was such that he could make no demands. Condemned as an unreconstructed nationalist -- and worse, as usurper of the slain Rabin -- he was on trial. Any demand he would make of Arafat would be seen as an act of bad faith, a tactic to destroy Oslo on the pretext of reciprocity.


Arafat charged that Netanyahu's go-slow strategy on Hebron betrayed Netanyahu's true feelings about (i.e., rejection of) Oslo -- and the world agreed. The Jerusalem tunnel riots sealed the fate of Netanyahu's go-slow policy: After first justifying their violence on the grounds of Israeli violation of Islamic holy places, the Palestinians (faced with the fact that there was no such violation) quickly changed tack and admitted that their real grievance was Netanyahu's stalling on Oslo. When the world -- and, crucially, the U.S. government-seemed tacitly to accept this as a legitimate justification for a mini-war, the conclusion was clear: Netanyahu's drive to begin his administration by demanding reciprocity could not continue.


Before he would be in a position to demand, let alone collect, anything, Netanyahu had first to sign onto the dotted line of Oslo. That he did with the Hebron Protocol.


And that is the meaning of Hebron: Reciprocity starts now, if it is to start at all.


How? Under the Hebron Protocol, Netanyahu promised to carry out the three further West Bank withdrawals that the Labor government had promised in Oslo II. Astonishingly, the Labor government committed Israel to give up most of its bargaining leverage -- West Bank acreage -- in advance of final- status negotiations that will determine Israel's final borders and the fate of Jerusalem. It was crazy. But that is what Labor did. And this is what Likud was obliged to reaffirm.


But having now officially committed his government to Oslo, Netanyahu has bargaining chips of his own. Each of these redeployments, scheduled to occur in stages between March of this year and May of next, will be up to Israel. Israel will determine their extent. And, more important, Israel will have to determine whether the Palestinians have lived up to enough of their own commitments to justify Israel's making yet another irrevocable concession.


Netanyahu's commitment to reciprocity will now be tested. If Arafat does not carry out his commitments, Netanyahu must be prepared to suspend redeployment. If he doesn't, if he just complains about the lack of reciprocity, he will be reenacting the very supine unilateralism he so savagely condemned in Peres.


Having proved his bona fides by getting Likud to sign on to Oslo, Netanyahu will now have to show that reciprocity has teeth. Arafat will now see whether or not he really will be obliged to carry out his side of the bargain. The Hebron agreement is, in reality, a gateway to the really hard test of wills to come.

 

III


It is quite obvious what the Hebron agreement gave the Palestinians. With the last and most vital West Bank town under their control, 90 percent of the Palestinian people have been relieved of occupation and now live under PLO rule. Moreover, Likud has signed on to the Oslo process. And Arafat has found that his own stalling cost him nothing in world public opinion, nor did it incur a price from the United States, which retained its neutrality throughout the negotiating process.


What did Israel gain? First, as noted above, the right to press for reciprocity. But for the right to have meaning it must involve the United States, the ultimate arbiter in the region. Hence Netanyahu's second, rather subtle, achievement: enmeshing the United States once again in the Israeli- Palestinian peace process.


Normally, this would be considered a setback for Israel. In negotiating with Arabs, Israel has always fought to rid itself of mediators. Generally, it is the Arabs who prefer an intermediary. They eschew face-to-face negotiations both to symbolize their fundamental non-acceptance of Israel (as Syria tried to do with Warren Christopher throughout the first Clinton administration) and to bring American pressure on Israel.


How does this work? The United States is naturally less interested in the details of any agreement than in the diplomatic triumph that comes with its very achievement. Hence any process in which the United States is deeply involved would by its very nature impel the American government to put pressure for concessions on whatever side it could in order to get a deal, any deal. And because Israel is so much more dependent on America than the Arabs are, that side -- the pressured side -- invariably turns out to be Israel. QED.


That is why the Arabs have always insisted on elevating the American role. And that is why some commentators, working on analytic autopilot, think American reengagement in Oslo is a setback for Israel.


Not this time. In the current state of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, American arbitration has become crucial for Israel.


For the fundamental flaw with Oslo is that till now it has been a one-way street. As Netanyahu puts it, "collective bargaining has become 'Israel bargains and the Palestinians collect.'" At first, it didn't matter because the Labor party was not interested in collecting. Labor did not even publicly object to such rank Palestinian violations as the bloated size of their army and their refusal to change the PLO charter. Peres was a peacemaker in a hurry. He was not about to let such details slow him down. This willful ignorance was one part cynicism and nine parts utopianism: Labor believes that giving up the West Bank and Gaza is a net plus for Israel regardless of whether the Palestinians give anything in return because it lifts from Israel the moral and physical burden of ruling a foreign people. If withdrawal is in and of itself in your interest, why bother with reciprocity?


Likud did not see it that way. And, as the 1996 Israeli election proved, neither did a majority of Israelis. They believe that naked withdrawal is a net minus, a serious weakening of Israel's military and strategic position. Moreover, they see a one-way giveaway as a historic opportunity squandered. If these lands, so precious to Arabs and Israelis, are to be given to the Palestinians who desperately want them, only a fool would give them away for free.


Netanyahu's project is to get payment. The problem is: how? The answer is: through the Americans.


The Hebron Protocol goes on for pages in almost comical detail about security arrangements in the city of Hebron. Americans are deeply entwined in these details -- having promised, for example, to unilaterally rebuild Al- Shuhada Street down to the installation of lampposts, litter baskets, planters, and "a new storm drain system (if appropriate)."


These security arrangements were the focus of most of the world attention on the Hebron accords. They are almost totally irrelevant. In the end, the security of the Jews in Hebron will depend not on this or that provision of the protocol but on the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.


The really important part of the Hebron accords has nothing to do with Hebron. The really important part is the "Note for the Record" drawn up by Dennis Ross. It has a section called "Palestinian Responsibilities" which restates all the promises the Palestinians have failed to carry out: changing their charter, dismantling the terror apparatus in the territories, keeping their police under a ceiling of 18,000, and closing their offices in Jerusalem. Moreover, an accompanying letter from Secretary of State Christopher pledges the United States will "help ensure that all outstanding commitments are carried out by both parties in a cooperative spirit and on the basis of reciprocity."


The United States has thus ratified in writing the central plank of Netanyahu's revision -- one might say, interpretation -- of Oslo: reciprocity. Now, this just might be semantics. The United States may in fact do nothing to ensure reciprocity on the part of the Palestinians. But by issuing these documents as part of the Hebron agreement, the United States has issued Netanyahu a claim against it.


He can now go to an American president and say: I pulled out of Hebron. I signed on to Oslo. I dragged my coalition kicking and screaming into acceptance of Oslo. And I did it for one thing: to get you to recognize the legitimacy of my demand for reciprocity. You gave it to me. Now I'm going to hold you to it.


Why is that important? Because when Arafat inspired the tunnel riots and broke the fundamental Oslo pledge of non-violence, he implicitly claimed he was justified because he was unhappy with progress in the peace process -- and the United States said nothing. It did not issue a word of chastisement for this egregious breach of Oslo.


Now, after the "Note for the Record" and the letter from Christopher, Israel can next time legitimately claim that the United States has committed itself never again to countenance such unilateral flouting of Oslo on the part of the Palestinians.


It is only a claim, critics of the accords may say. That is true. But Israel has no other lever. The Arabs, the Europeans, the rest of the international system exert zero pressure on Arafat. If anything, they confirm him in his unilateralism. Only the United States can offer countervailing pressure. With the Hebron Protocol, it promises to do so. In the delicate balance of wills that is the next stage of the peace process, this is a card Israel will crucially need.

 

IV


If the second achievement of the Hebron agreement was the Americanization of reciprocity, the third had nothing to do with the Americans and nothing to do with the Palestinians. Yet it is the most important of all: banishing the prospect of a civil war among the Jews of Israel.


This is not hyperbole. With Labor proceeding headlong down its path of unilateral withdrawal, that prospect was becoming real. As Natan Sharansky, minister of industry and trade, put it: "Unlike our predecessors, we understand that the peace process requires that we represent not just half of the Israeli spectrum, but rather all Israelis."


The Hebron agreement was historic for Israel. It was the first time that Likud agreed to give up a piece of Eretz Yisrael -- the land of Israel. Netanyahu not only signed on to Hebron. He got a majority of his rightist coalition to sign on as well. And he brought the majority of Parliament along with him.


Remember: Netanyahu may have campaigned personally as one who would retain Oslo while making it more reciprocal, but this was not the unanimous view of Likud. There are many in Likud and, more generally, on the Israeli right who view Oslo as so fundamentally flawed that it needs to be rejected at whatever cost.


Netanyahu recognized that the cost of this approach would have been far more than Israel could bear. He then proceeded to bring his half of Israel into the peace process. Signing Hebron meant retroactively signing Oslo, and Netanyahu got his "national camp" cabinet to sign, 11-7. In the Knesset, he got his own Likud party to vote more than 2-1 in favor. When Menachem Begin brought Camp David back to the Israeli parliament in September 1978, almost half the Knesset members of Begin's own Herut party failed to support him.


Netanyahu's Knesset passed the Hebron-Oslo deal by a larger majority than Camp David received in 1978. And Camp David gave away Egyptian sand; the Hebron Protocol gave away Judaism's Medina, its second holiest city.


With Hebron, Netanyahu managed to bring most of the nationalist camp of Israel to recognize that Oslo is a fact. He made his own promise to honor it the official policy of a government of the right.


The importance of this for Israeli national unity cannot be underestimated. The great sin of the Labor party in pushing through the Oslo accords was not that it risked land for peace. Land for peace is an arguable strategy; history will judge its wisdom. But we can already judge the unwisdom of forcing such radical, fundamental, existential change on a country with the razor-thin majority that Labor had in the parliament and in the country.


In the United States, merely passing a treaty requires two-thirds of the Senate. Rabin and Peres proposed giving up Israel's patrimony and its most vital strategic assets with a majority of one vote (!) in the Israeli parliament. Half of Israel was truly disenfranchised by Oslo. It had reason to feel betrayed. Had Peres continued unilaterally, he would have brought the country to the brink of civil war.


In retrospect, Netanyahu's election was the best thing that could have happened to the peace process. He has turned it from the policy of 51 percent of Israel to the policy of 75 percent. For Oslo to do anything other than tear apart the Israeli body politic, it had to be entrusted to a skeptic who would carry it out nonetheless. It is a cliche that only Nixon could go to China. Netanyahu's going to -- from -- Hebron is an even larger act. After all, China policy never touched on the fundamental existence of the United States.


As de Gaulle showed in Algeria, peace is best made by the Right. Only Begin could have made peace with Egypt. Only Likud can make peace with the Palestinians -- if there is a peace to be made.


With 75 percent of Israel behind him, Netanyahu can proceed to test that proposition as Rabin and Peres could not. Netanyahu's achievement is the creation of a mandate for the tough, reciprocal peace process that he has demanded. It is now up to him -- and the United States -- to make that mandate more than just the paper promise of Hebron.




Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His previous articles about Israel include "Bibi's Tunnel, Yasser's War" (Oct. 14, 1996) and "Why Bibi Won" (June 17, 1996).