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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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This achievement has come at high cost. Having rejected Peres's easy downward path of giving it all away in the middle game, Israel has suffered diplomatically and Netanyahu politically. The lovey-dovey multilateral conferences -- the tip of the hat and the handshake from the likes of Qatar and Morocco that Peres so cherished -- are in suspension. The Arab grant of legitimacy to Israel has largely been withdrawn. Critics blame this on Netanyahu's blundering. In fact, it demonstrates how flimsy and insubstantial these so easily reversible gestures were in the first place.

Netanyahu himself has been subject to personal attacks of a savagery rare even by Israeli standards. It got so out of hand that one member of the peace camp wrote a celebrated and now notorious article in the leading liberal daily, Ha'aretz, entitled "The Year of Hating Bibi." Ari Shavit argued that the hostility of Israel's Left-dominated elites to Netanyahu had reached such pathological proportions that the phenomenon could be explained only as an irrational projection onto him of all the disappointments and frustrations felt by the Left as its illusions about Oslo had crumbled.

Netanyahu is undeterred. And not just, as conventional wisdom has it, for reasons of coalition politics. Getting out of the middle game with some substantial part of the West Bank still in hand remains his considered strategy. And it is popular. Ronald Reagan used to say that in the end what counts is not critics but box office. Netanyahu, despite his critics, leads in the polls. He reflects the realism of a very realistic Israeli public.



The current impasse concerns what shape -- literally -- Israel and the Palestinian territory will have at the start of the endgame. The rub is that, whatever the extent of the current Israeli FRD -- 9 percent of the West Bank, or 13 percent, or something in between -- Arafat insists that Israel owes him yet another FRD after that.

Technically, he is right. But technically, too, the Israelis can make this third FRD as small as they want. (Indeed, they could give Albright her cherished 13 percent by making the current FRD, say, 9 percent and making a final FRD of 4 percent.) Understand: Netanyahu is prepared to swallow Albright's 13 percent. But only if that clearly puts an end to the middle game. No more FRDs. On to final-status negotiations.

The problem is that Arafat is balking and the administration has maneuvered itself into the position of negotiating on Arafat's behalf. The only path through this crisis is clear: Israel will have to knuckle under to Albright's 13 percent ultimatum, and Arafat will have to forgo any substantial third FRD and content himself for the time being with about 40 percent of the prize. Not bad, considering that five years ago the only real estate he controlled was in Tunisia.

The endgame -- final-status talks -- can then begin. And then what?

It may turn out that the endgame is unplayable. It is not for nothing that the original Oslo negotiators, who found such comity and common purpose, could themselves not even begin to decide such sensitive issues as Jerusalem, final borders, refugees, and water. They kicked all that into the safe and distant future. After five years of a poisonous middle game filled with terrorism and mistrust, it is even less likely that these conundrums will now be solved.

The more likely scenario is the following: Israel and the Palestinian Authority negotiate fruitlessly for a year. On May 4, 1999, the date on which these negotiations are supposed to have concluded, Arafat unilaterally declares a Palestinian state.

Arafat has threatened to do this. He has recently backed off under pressure from Albright, but this backing off, like his promises, is to be treated with skepticism. If he calculates in May 1999 that he can safely declare statehood, he will do it. He can be assured of immediate recognition from perhaps 150 countries, including all of Europe. The vital question is what the United States will do. American recognition is the key to real statehood. It clears the way for U.N. membership, acceptance in all other international bodies, and undisputed legitimacy.

Whichever way the United States moves, Israel's response is foreordained. It will annex the 60 percent or so of the West Bank still under its military control. This is almost entirely empty land. (Remember: 98 percent of Palestinians are under Arafat's rule today.) This would establish for Israel a security belt between it and Palestine, a state with which Israel's relationship would be one of confrontation -- and without Oslo or any other principles to guide that relationship.

The Palestinians would undoubtedly challenge this annexation and claim the 60 percent for themselves. The result would be an intense crisis and possibly war.

The key question for U.S. negotiators now is how to avoid this dread scenario. How to keep the endgame from degenerating into mutual unilateralism next May?

The best way to forestall a unilaterally declared Palestinian state is for the United States to make absolutely clear that it will recognize no Palestinian state that is not the product of a negotiated settlement. That and that alone will make Arafat pause before bringing on the whirlwind. Sure, he'll get recognition from Zimbabwe and Malaysia, even France. But in the end, it is Washington that counts. And he may not want to risk American ostracism with a step that Washington has made clear it will reject.

What is wrong with Palestinian statehood? Wouldn't this finally get one of the stumbling blocks to peace out of the way? Don't even Israelis already know that there will be a Palestinian state? Of course they do. But unilateral, as opposed to negotiated, statehood carries huge dangers. Two of the immutable attributes of a state are its ability to arm itself as it pleases and its ability to conclude alliances as it pleases. These are the two conditions that Israel cannot tolerate in a Palestinian state nestled up against its major cities. It would be suicidal for Israel to permit an armed Palestine allied with, say, Syria and Iraq. Even Israeli doves, who welcome a Palestinian state, have always insisted that it be demilitarized and not permitted to station allied Arab armies on its soil.

Which is why Hillary Clinton's endorsement of a Palestinian state was so disastrous. First, because she placed no restrictions on what it would look like and what it could do. She said explicitly that the Palestinian state should be "on the same footing as any other state." But a Palestinian state like all others -- i.e., militarized and allied -- is a prescription for war.

Second, because she demanded no quid pro quo. She signaled to Arafat that he could have his state for free without having to make any concessions. Was Mrs. Clinton launching a trial balloon on behalf of the administration? No one knows. But her statement certainly was read that way in the Middle East. It might therefore have given Arafat hope that if he does declare unilateral independence, Hillary's husband will follow suit with recognition.

Arafat's goal is clear. He wants his state, and he wants it to encompass as much of the West Bank as possible. Statehood is America's to give. Territory is Israel's. When Arafat concludes that he will need to give in order to get, he'll deal. If Arafat understands that he will get statehood and territory only in the context of successful final-status talks, his mind will be concentrated on the wisdom of (1) quickly concluding the current middle game and (2) making the concessions necessary to get a final-status deal with Israel.

This is not quite the beginning of the end. But it certainly is the end of the beginning. Despite the current calculated gloom, with realism on all sides a deal is still very possible. Whether it will hold longer than Mohammed's Khudaibiya agreement, however, is another matter.

Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.