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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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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?