The Magazine

THE COMING PALESTINIAN STATE

Wye is the bridge to next year's Middle East showdown

Nov 9, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 09 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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Occam's Razor is a principle that has served science well for about, oh, 650 years. It holds that the simplest, most parsimonious explanation for a phenomenon is likely to be the correct one. Middle East analysts, however, particularly those with an allergy to Bibi Netanyahu, follow not Occam, but Rube Goldberg. Here is Netanyahu making a historic territorial compromise, and his critics, flummoxed, reach for any explanation, however complicated or unlikely -- he is reaching for a new coalition of the Israeli center, he caved in to American pressure (after holding out for two years?), he had a sudden change of heart -- except the obvious. At Wye, Netanyahu did exactly what he has said repeatedly he would do: abide by Oslo but withdraw from occupied territory only in return for hard guarantees of Palestinian reciprocity and Israeli security.


You might think that for doing exactly this he'd get perhaps a nod from that universal chorus of Western critics who for two years claimed he was intent on killing the peace process. Not a chance. Instead, one gets the contortions of a Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who rushed to the New York Times op-ed pages three days after Wye to criticize Netanyahu for not really being, like Nixon in China, "a sincere zealot at all."


The point is that Netanyahu never was a zealot. He has long believed that a solution to the Palestinian question would require some territorial compromise. He was never a "Land of Israel" ideologue. He would, of course, have preferred to hold on to every inch for security reasons. But he understands realities.


Wye was an exercise in reality. Accordingly, both sides got what they wanted. Netanyahu got reciprocity. Arafat got contiguity. These sound amorphous. They are not. In the epic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are life and death for each party.


Netanyahu campaigned in 1996 on the premise that the Oslo agreements that his predecessors Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres had negotiated had been giveaways. Yasser Arafat signed lots of paper and delivered nothing. The Palestinian covenant calling for Israel's destruction was not changed. Terrorists ran free in the territories. The Palestinian police force was more than twice its authorized size. Murderers of Israelis were not extradited. The Hamas infrastructure was untouched. (Indeed, Arafat publicly embraced its leadership. Last June, he invited Hamas to join his cabinet.)


Israel's Labor government insisted on continuing down this path of unilateralism on the theory that in the end when peace prevails these promises and security measures will hardly matter because, well, peace will prevail. The interim is just details. Give the Palestinians their dignity through concessions, and that will abate the terrorism by striking at its cause, i.e., the Palestinian grievance.


Rarely has a political theory been so rebutted by events. Under Peres and Rabin, the most generous and accommodating Israeli leaders in Palestinian history, Palestinian irredentism and terrorism were inflamed as never before. More Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks than at any comparable time before or after in Israeli's history. So much for a theory of appeasement.


Netanyahu's election was the result. He came into office with a mandate, but it was not a mandate to destroy Oslo. However flawed the agreement, Israel was irrevocably committed. The United States as arbiter and hegemon in the region would not tolerate such an about-face. Netanyahu's strategy therefore was clear from day one: To get out from under Oslo -- in particular, from the ruinous "interim" territorial withdrawals -- with the least amount of damage.


One needs to stress again how obtuse the Western press has been on this point. It makes much merriment of the idea that Netanyahu, once an opponent of Oslo, has now at Wye become its champion. The fact is that Netanyahu opposed Oslo at its inception as a supremely wrongheaded deal for Israel. But once it had been signed and internationally ratified, no Israeli prime minister could tear it up. His pledge was to conclude Oslo without giving away all of Israel's bargaining chips (such as the West Bank and Palestinian state-hood) before "final status" talks on the critical existential issues of Jerusalem, borders, water, statehood, and refugees had even begun. That he did at Wye.

 

II


The "interim phase" as negotiated by Rabin and Peres was one in which Israel would make three "redeployments" -- unilateral grants of West Bank territory -- after which final-status negotiations would begin. Netanyahu understood that if that were to happen, Israel would have no bargaining chips left when the most crucial issues were to be decided. There would be nothing left to do but give up East Jerusalem, acquiesce to a Palestinian state, allow the influx of huge numbers of Palestinian refugees, and so on. Arafat understood this too. Which is why he kicked and screamed in March 1997 when Netanyahu offered only a token first redeployment. Arafat rejected it out of hand. He demanded 30 percent of the West Bank.


Where did he get that figure? It is written nowhere in Oslo. But clearly he understood from Peres that he would get about a third of the land in each of the three redeployments, giving him just about all the occupied territories by the start of final-status negotiations.


Netanyahu's entire strategy for the last two years, undertaken at huge diplomatic and personal political cost, has been to reduce Arafat's expectations. He had to make Arafat realize that whatever the provocations, whatever the diplomatic damage, however sour Israeli relations with the Arabs, however damaged Israeli relations with the United States, however many rock-throwing and tear-gas incidents this would provoke on the West Bank, Arafat was simply not going to get 90 percent of the land in the interim phase.


On this he won. Wye ratifies the victory. Arafat had 27 percent of the territories when Netanyahu came to power. Wye gives him 13 percent more. Oslo's interim phase will end with Israel having given up 40 percent of the land.


From the Israeli point of view, this is an extraordinary achievement. It leaves Israel with a serious chunk of territory on the West Bank to bargain with.


How did Bibi do it? The three redeployments have essentially been folded into one, the famous 13 percent as demanded by the United States. Formally, the 13 percent counts as fulfilling redeployments numbers one and two. What about number three? Arafat had been pushing very hard for there to be yet another redeployment after Wye. He got that. But Netanyahu got crucial American agreement that its size would be entirely up to Israel, and Netanyahu has indicated that it will be no more than 1 percent, i.e., essentially meaningless.


The other major Israeli gain at Wye was on security. It is a measure of how inept Labor's negotiating of Oslo had been that at Wye the security issues Netanyahu was trying to nail down were precisely the same ones that Rabin claimed he had gotten from Arafat five years ago.


Rabin thought he had secured a change in the PLO charter; five years later the charter had not been changed. He thought he had secured a promise to crack down on terrorism; five years later nothing had been done. He thought he had secured an "end to war" pledge from the Palestinians -- matching the "end to war" atmosphere that Sadat had taken back to Egypt from his 1977 visit to Jerusalem; instead, the new official Palestinian media have been sources of egregious anti-Semitic incitement, and the new Palestinian schools raise children on the glories of martyrdom and jihad.


Palestinian reciprocity was essential. But how to get it? Netanyahu's consistent strategy has been that, because Arafat's word is not worth the paper it is written on, the United States would have to be brought deep into the process to make Arafat deliver.


It was a historic gamble. Traditionally, Israelis do not like to bring in third parties. Trilateral negotiations subject them to more pressure, while increasing their dependency and reducing their freedom of action. Nonetheless, Netanyahu understood that no Palestinian promise would be carried out unless the United States demanded it.


He thought he had enlisted the United States with the Hebron agreement of January 1997. At Hebron, he gave up most of Judaism's second-holiest city in return for (a) a host of Arafat promises -- these were entirely discounted -- and (b) more important, an American "Note for the Record" prepared by Dennis Ross codifying Palestinian obligations.


To Netanyahu's enormous disappointment, Ross's paper turned out to be as worthless as Arafat's. For example, the written U.S. assurance that Israel alone would decide the size of its next redeployment was ignored; the United States instead dictated 13 percent. The change in the Palestinian charter, the cracking down on terrorists, the anti-incitement provisions, all went unfulfilled and unenforced.


What to do? Bring the United States in deeper still. This time, translate American paper into operational CIA oversight over Palestinian actions. What Wye does that Hebron did not is create actual structures on the ground whereby the United States will try to extract real reciprocity.


For example, the Palestinian Authority refuses to extradite terrorists to Israel. It "tries" them itself (the charge for murder is "disturbing the peace"), then either releases them outright or sends them to a revolving-door jail for later release. The CIA will now be involved in this process to ensure that terrorists are sentenced and serve their time. The CIA is also to supervise the Palestinian Authority's seizure of illegal weapons, the reduction of the Palestinian police from 40,000 to 24,000, and the turning over to Israel of a list of the members of the force -- as promised five years ago.


This is all very new and all very risky, both for the United States and for Israel. It involves the United States in an internecine conflict at street level. This is Bosnia squared. Nonetheless, the administration took the plausible view that the larger U.S. interest in pushing for peace -- or, to put it more realistically, in preventing a total breakdown of the process -- warranted the risk.


The risk to Israel is great as well. The CIA's primary function in Israel is to coordinate with Israel in meeting common threats. Now the agency is also to be an arbiter. Mixing the roles of arbiter and collaborator is very difficult and may end up creating debilitating tension between the allied services whenever Israel, as is inevitable, deems the CIA not sufficiently tough on Palestinian terrorism.


Nonetheless, again, there is no alternative. If Israel is ever to get reciprocity and real security guarantees under Oslo, it will only be through American involvement. Wye promises reciprocity with teeth.

 

III


So why are no Israelis dancing in the street? Because what Netanyahu was required to give was enormous too. Arafat's gains are significant, though subtle.


This is Arafat's problem: He wants to declare statehood, but he needs his territory to look like a state if anyone is to take him seriously. In 1988, the Palestinian National Council declared Palestinian independence and the world laughed. He does not want to hear laughter again.


The world laughed because no serious country will recognize a state -- in '88 for example, no country of the European Union recognized Palestine -- if it does not control territory. Before Oslo, Arafat controlled a few villas in Tunisia. Today Arafat controls real territory. Is it enough to be the basis for statehood?


The 13 percent he gained at Wye is important to him not for the size of the acreage but for the number of isolated islands of Palestinian territory that the 13 percent (mostly unoccupied land) will connect. It will knit together much of the Palestinian archipelago. Contiguity will be given an even more visible face with the connection of Gaza to the West Bank through two "safe passages," i.e., Palestinian roads of the sort that connected West Berlin to West Germany during the Cold War. With Gaza and the West Bank linked, the Palestinian territory will look far more like a state.


Several other of the essential building blocks of statehood were given at Wye. The Gaza airport will soon be open. A seaport will be next. And perhaps most important, Arafat -- or was it the U.S. negotiators? -- managed to arrange a first: The president of the United States will come to Gaza and address a giant convention of Palestinians, both from the territories and from the diaspora.


This visit was meant as a sweetener to induce Arafat to convene the Palestinian National Council to finally change its national charter to, in effect, recognize Israel. It is not clear whether the PNC will in fact convene and whether, if it does, it will ratify a change in the charter. (Wye vaguely envisions a larger meeting involving unions, women's groups, etc. -- all the usual suspects that authoritarian regimes turn out at will -- to pack the meeting. Even if this motley crew ratifies some change in the charter, it will mean little: The charter can be amended only by a two-thirds vote of the PNC alone. No matter. The change will be deemed by the United States and the world to have occurred.) What is clear however, is that an American president will come to Palestine to bless its Congress, address a Palestinian festival celebrating coming independence, and launch it on that road.


As a footnote, President Clinton is reportedly planning to take Mrs. Clinton to Gaza. Whether this is a not-so-subtle swipe at Netanyahu for defying American wishes and bringing his wife to Wye, no one will say. Everyone knows, however, that bringing Mrs. Clinton, who quite famously called for a Palestinian state just a few months ago, will be seen by the Palestinians and the world as a signal of the administration's leanings on this heavily freighted issue.

 

IV


Statehood is the issue. On May 4 next year, Arafat will declare a Palestinian state. Is it possible that enormous American pressure or some unexpected event may dissuade him? Yes, but highly unlikely. On statehood, Arafat has gone very far out on a limb. For months he had been telling his people that May 4 is the day. With each passing day, it becomes harder for him to climb off that perch.


At a briefing for columnists just two weeks before Wye, I asked Netanyahu what interest Israel had, if Arafat was shortly going to declare Oslo dead and Palestine a state, in giving Arafat the geographic contiguity and other trappings of statehood in an agreement that would expire -- by Arafat's own reckoning -- in six months. Would Wye include a Palestinian pledge and an American guarantee that there would be no unilateral declaration of independence?


Netanyahu said statehood would be a "consideration." But unless there is some secret understanding between the United States and Israel on this issue, he failed: There is nothing in the Wye agreement that even mentions statehood. There is a statement that both sides are to refrain from "unilateral actions," but that is boilerplate. Every time Israel shovels dirt in Jerusalem or adds a barn in some West Bank settlement, this is condemned as a "unilateral action." The term has lost any serious meaning. It would be no problem for Arafat to claim that Netanyahu's "unilateralism" -- say, beginning construction at Har Homa in Jerusalem -- has vitiated the unilateralism clause and therefore there is nothing to restrain Arafat from declaring statehood.


The administration will try to head off such a declaration on May 4. Not because it opposes a Palestinian state. There has already been a change in policy on that. At the 1991 Madrid conference, the United States explicitly declared that it would not support a Palestinian state. Current U.S. policy, however, focuses not on the substance of statehood, but on the manner in which it comes about. The U.S. position is that it should come about only through a negotiated agreement with Israel.


Though its position is much softer now, the administration will want to head off statehood simply because of its potential for danger. A Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence is a guarantee of instability. It will likely bring on some kind of armed conflict, perhaps even a major Middle East war. The United States is terrified of May 4 because it takes everyone into terra incognita, and terra incognita is the last place any policymaker wants to be.

 

V


In the worst-case scenario -- and it is not at all farfetched -- when Palestine is declared, all hell breaks loose. First, 150 nations recognize Palestine. Israel is faced with a fait accompli and a major setback. After all, just five or ten years ago, Israel's permitting an independent Palestinian state would have been seen as a huge concession for which it deserved something in return -- say, the permanent demilitarization of such a state. A unilateral declaration of independence sets no such conditions -- no conditions at all -- on Palestine. If Israel fails to respond, it will have lost enormous ground. There will therefore be great pressure within Israel to act. And the most obvious and logical thing it could do is annex the 60 percent of the West Bank still under Israeli control.


After all, if Oslo is dead, and if each side can unilaterally make its claims, Israel would be wise to claim as much West Bank territory for itself as it can, rather than cede it to an unrestrained Palestine. Israel would be arming itself with a territorial bargaining chip -- its last remaining bargaining chip -- for the showdown to come.


Next comes the crisis. After all, it would be a Likud dream were the situation to freeze with Arafat having his state on 40 percent of the West Bank and Israel keeping the other 60 percent. This is not Arafat's dream. It is his nightmare. It would settle the Israel-Palestine conflict far more favorably to Israel than anyone might have imagined. Indeed, it corresponds to the outline of a final territorial compromise that someone like Netanyahu, even before Arafat's gains at Oslo, might have been satisfied with.


In such a situation, stability is the last thing Arafat wants. Forty percent is better than what he has now, but it is still a threadbare state and not very viable. His interest will undoubtedly be to create a crisis. And he creates crisis with violence.


At a recent conference two months ago, a leading Palestinian negotiator envisioned a scenario in which an armed force from Palestine might try to seize the Allenby Bridge crossing. But it need not be anything so dramatic. It could be non-stop intifada-like rioting in a place like Hebron. Or it could be carefully staged Palestinian military pressure on isolated Israeli settlements. (The territorial concessions in the Wye accord leave some half-dozen Israeli settlements isolated behind Palestinian lines and reachable only by access road. These are obvious pressure points.) Israel would be forced to respond militarily.


After that what happens? No one knows. It is hard even to calculate who will have the advantage. Israel will have the tanks. The Palestinians will have the TV cameras. The last time those went up against each other -- during the intifada -- Israel lost.


Which is why Arafat, who in Jordan and Lebanon and now the West Bank and Gaza has always thrived on crisis, might be tempted. He might even envision the military support of some Arab states. After all, they would now be defending a sovereign brother Arab state, not just intervening in a messy occupation.


Whether or not the Arab states joined the conflict, one thing is certain: The United States would find the situation intolerable. It would of necessity intervene to restrain the conflict. What would come of that? We cannot know because the deck would have been reshuffled in ways that cannot be predicted. But reshuffling the deck would be Arafat's very purpose: It might leave him with more than just a rump state on territory gained at Oslo and Wye.


Next year we will probably look back with nostalgia on the bucolic Middle East represented at Wye, with its casually clad leaders working out the details of peace between bicycle rides. Wye may only be transitional, but its historical import is not to be underestimated. The territorial lines it sets down, together with the elements of statehood it bestows, establish a new baseline. This will supersede such previous baselines as the June 4, 1967 frontiers. As we speak, Wye is setting the groundwork for the coming Palestinian state -- and the conflict to follow.


Wye has been disparaged as just an interim arrangement, preparation for "the hard part." The fact is, however, there probably will never be a hard part. The chance that the final-status negotiations now being launched will succeed is practically zero.


One day the fate of Jerusalem, of Palestine, of Israel itself will be decided. Soon. Possibly in the next year. Perhaps in two. But probably, too, by force of arms or by some major shift in the constellation of forces in the region that will cause one side or the other to abandon long-sacred "red lines" and give up its most cherished goals.


That is the crisis waiting to happen. For now, Wye is the bridge to that crisis, the last agreement between Israel and the Palestinians we are likely to see before the fateful showdown.




Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.