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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.