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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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The State Department is not very pleased with Netanyahu. Things were so much easier with Shimon Peres. Peres considered the very notion of bargaining chips and reciprocal obligations to be a remnant of "old thinking," obsolete and unnecessary in the new Middle East of peace and brotherhood that he and his partner Yasser Arafat had ushered in.

So determined was Peres to let nothing stand in the way of his peace process that in 1996, for example, he welcomed a sham revision of the Palestinian National Charter as "the most important ideological change that has occurred in the Middle East in the past 100 years." (The Palestine National Council left the revision to a committee; the committee never met.) Peres would blithely have given up the bulk of the West Bank to Arafat in interim FRDs and entered the final-status endgame quite naked of bargaining chips.

There is a logic here. Who needs chips when you're talking to partners? Netanyahu and Likud, however, have another view of the peace process. They take Arafat at his word that the peace process is a struggle, a zero-sum game between adversaries, and not some magic of brotherhood and peace where Benelux breaks out in a land soaked with the blood of martyrs.

What is Arafat's view of Oslo? "The peace agreement which we signed is an 'inferior peace,'" says Arafat, most recently on April 18 on Egyptian TV. This phrase has a very specific meaning in the Arab lexicon. It refers to the Khudaibiya peace pact which the prophet Mohammed made with the Koreish tribe. Mohammed broke it within two years, attacking and destroying the Koreish. "Of course, I do not compare myself to the prophet," says Arafat, "but I do say that we must learn from his steps and those of Saladin." (Saladin made an armistice with the Crusaders, then declared a jihad and took Jerusalem.)

Because American diplomats ignore and discount such clear expressions of Arafat's disdainfully contingent view of Oslo, they are puzzled by Netanyahu's strategy, a strategy designed to engage Arafat's zero-sum strategy on its own terms. Everyone professes puzzlement at Netanyahu, always asking where he's going and whether he even knows where he is going. But his direction is not hard to fathom. His goal is to confront Oslo as it is -- not as it is imagined -- and to bring realism to the fantasists of both the hard Right and the dreamy Left.

First, he brought the Right into Oslo. Netanyahu was never a Greater Israel ideologue. As far back as the 1980s he understood that in the end there would have to be "territorial compromise." The question is how much territory and for what kind of compromise. Hebron was the Israeli hardliners' Rubicon, and Netanyahu made them cross it. It ended any serious representation of rejectionists in the Israeli ruling structure. Why, Arik Sharon, the hero of the Right and bugaboo of all correct-thinking peace lovers, is the one who came up with the current 9 percent withdrawal offer. There is practically no politician of any real authority or following in the country who is talking about anything other than how much to return for what.

This service to peace rendered by Netanyahu goes largely unrecognized and entirely unappreciated in the West. On the other hand, his second service -- injecting realism into Israel's negotiating position and, by lowering inflated Palestinian expectations, into Arafat's as well -- has earned him nothing but opprobrium from the West. By the time Netanyahu came to power, the utter casualness of Peres's concessions had led Arafat to assume that he would come out of the Oslo middle game -- the interim period, with its Israeli FRDs -- with as much as 80-90 percent of the West Bank in his pocket.

Netanyahu understood that for Israel this is insanity. Under those circumstances, Israel would enter the life-and-death endgame -- the final-status negotiations over permanent borders, Palestinian statehood, Jerusalem, water, refugees -- entirely naked. Arafat would bring in his perennial chit, peace (his threats of renewed violence are never far beneath the surface), and Israel would have already given up its chit, land.

Netanyahu's major achievement in his two years in office has been to lower Arafat's expectations. This has understandably made Arafat cross and displeased the State Department. But it has worked: Arafat now knows that he is not going to get 90 percent of the disputed territories in the middle game. The current bitter negotiations are over how close he will come to 40 percent. (He already has 27 percent.)