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Benjamin Netanyahu's Subtle, Tenuous Achievement

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



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).