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Behind the Sound and Fury of the High-Stakes Peace Talks

Jun 8, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 38 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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All through the night of January 15, 1997, the Israeli cabinet was in agonizing debate. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, barely six months in office, was asking his cabinet to approve giving up Hebron. For its entire history, the Likud party had rejected the idea of giving up any part of the Land of Israel. And this was not just any land. After Jerusalem, Hebron is the holiest city in Judaism. (By the peculiar logic of the Middle East, the Arab claim to Jerusalem -- Islam's third holiest city, it is said -- is considered natural and just. Israel's claim to Hebron, Judaism's second holiest city, is deemed eccentric, indeed aggressive.)

Netanyahu's case was clear. Like it or not, the country had been committed to the Oslo peace agreement, and there was no way to turn back. Hebron had to be relinquished. His cabinet understood full well what that meant. Netanyahu was proposing an ideological earthquake. It was Hebron today and much, much more tomorrow. It meant that in "final-status" negotiations with the Palestinians, even larger pieces of territory would have to be given up.

But the immediate problem for the cabinet that night was what lay between Hebron and the final-status talks. Yes, they would clench their teeth and give up Hebron. Yes, they would prepare for even larger final-status concessions. But under Oslo, Israel was committed to further unilateral withdrawals during the "interim period" leading up to final status. Who would determine those withdrawals?

Under Oslo, the extent of the withdrawals ("further redeployments" or FRDs in diplospeak) was up to Israel. And the Clinton administration had assured Israel in the Hebron negotiations that this remained the case.

That night, however, the ministers were uneasy. They did not want to find themselves a few months down the road stampeded into giving away more land -- Israel's bargaining chips -- before even having reached the final-status talks. They wanted an unequivocal written reaffirmation from the United States that it would honor the Oslo agreement to leave the size of these FRDs to Israel.

At 11:00 P.M. they got it. U.S. ambassador Martin Indyk sent the cabinet secretary an urgent fax laying out the official U.S. position: "Further redeployment phases are issues for implementation by Israel rather than issues for negotiation with the Palestinians." A subsequent letter of assurance from Secretary of State Warren Christopher made clear that the "further redeployments" were an Israeli responsibility. A few hours later, in the small hours of the morning, the cabinet voted to withdraw from Hebron.

Fast-forward sixteen months. Indyk has climbed the greasy pole and is now assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. Madeleine Albright is secretary of state. Israel has withdrawn from Hebron. And it has offered an FRD surrendering a further 9 percent of the West Bank to Arafat. Yet on May 5 in London, Albright tell Netanyahu that 9 percent is unacceptable and demands 13 percent -- no, 13.1 percent. She warns of unspecified consequences if Israel does not accede to this ultimatum.

Indyk's midnight fax is less than a memory.

This dispute has been portrayed by the Clinton administration, and echoed in a compliant press, as an Israeli squabble over 4 percent (actually 2 percent: Netanyahu has indicated that he might go to 11 percent). It is nothing of the sort. What is at stake is, first, whether Israel gets to decide what is required for its own security, and, second and perhaps even more important, whether the Clinton administration's assurances to Israel can be believed.

Why are these principles so important? Because the land Israel is now giving up is as close to its major cities as Bethesda is to Washington, as close as Kennedy airport is to Manhattan. Israel is surrendering to its historic enemy -- an enemy still committed to Israel's destruction -- what are essentially the suburbs of its major cities. To deny Israel at this stage the right to decide which hill or pass or wadi it can safely surrender is to summon it to an assisted suicide.

Furthermore, from the days of Henry Kissinger and the Sinai withdrawals, the United States has encouraged Israel to take territorial risks by offering concrete compensation -- jet fighters, early-warning stations, diplomatic commitments -- to try to make up for the security assets being relinquished. If these assurances can be voided cavalierly, then every Israeli withdrawal becomes nothing more than an exercise in unilateral retreat.

Accordingly, London did not go well. Netanyahu cited the Christopher assurance and told Albright no.