Two years after Israel and the Palestinians signed an historic agreement and just as the Israeli election campaign begins to heat up, the man who wants to replace Yitzhak Rabin as Israel’s prime minister insists that the Israeli- Palestinian accord was a big mistake.
“Is there nothing good you can say about the Oslo Agreement?” an interviewer from Israel Radio asked Benjamin Netanyahu, using the popular name for the 2- year-old self-rule accord. “Nothing at all?”
But the leader of the Likud opposition refused to oblige.
What Netanyahu did offer during the interview Tuesday, the eve of the agreement’s second anniversary, was the suggestion that Rabin summon up the courage to do what politicians most hate doing: admit that he had made a mistake and start putting things right.
Although few were surprised by Netanyahu’s stance during the interview, political observers here noted a shift from his earlier positions as he prepared for the 1996 election campaign.
And even though Netanyahu has long been vehement in his opposition to the self- rule accord, he has abandoned his previous outright rejection of the historic agreement.
Netanyahu’s current public position on the validity of the self-rule accord is that if the Palestinians breach its terms, then Israel would no longer have the obligation to honor it.
That is a very far cry from saying that a Likud government would actually suspend the self-rule accord.
At the same time, Netanyahu no longer speaks of reinstituting Israel’s former boycott of Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat as a terrorist leader.
Instead, he lists a string of stiff conditions – deliberately left unspecific – which he says a Likud-led government would demand of any Palestinian leader.
Netanyahu’s change of stance is attributed to changes in the “facts on the ground” that have been wrought in the two years since the self-rule accord was hammered out in largely secret negotiations in Oslo during the summer of 1993 and signed in Washington in September of that year.
Perhaps most significantly, the Gaza Strip – long known as the “dagger pointed at the heart of Israel” – is no longer under Israeli administration.
Today, there are few Israelis who would support Netanyahu’s earlier calls to suspend the accord entirely – particularly if it meant sending the Israeli army back into Gaza.
And if Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization go ahead with signing an interim agreement on Palestinian self-rule, which calls for an Israeli troop withdrawal from the major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank, there would also be little likelihood of a future, Likud-led government sending the troops back in to occupy Nablus, Kalkilya, Bethlehem and the other West Bank towns due to be vacated.
But the essential irrevocability of the changes wrought by the 2-year-old self- rule accord goes even deeper than this.
Despite Netanyahu’s contention that Arafat has not properly “recognized” Israel, any future Israeli government would be bound by the exchange of letters of recognition between Arafat and Rabin that accompanied the self-rule accord – as well as by the spirit of the agreement’s preamble.
Israel is effectively bound, on the political and the humanitarian level, by the historic act of recognition that accompanied the accord.
It would, moreover, be fruitless for any future Israeli government to cold- shoulder Arafat and the PLO, and seek alternative Palestinian partners, now that the PLO leadership is solidly ensconced in Gaza and, increasingly, on the West Bank.
For these reasons, perhaps the most important provision of the accord may be the part most usually ignored by readers because it is not legally binding on the two signatories: the preamble.
The government of the State of Israel and the PLO team “agree that it is time to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict,” the preamble states.
Political observers discern a steady, tacit recognition of these realities beneath the Likud’s rhetoric.
And they expect this important point to become more sharply apparent once the election campaign gets under way in earnest.
As they fine-tune their campaign rhetoric, Netanyahu and the opposition on the right cite two key areas that, in their contention, the Palestinians have failed to live up to basic tenets of the self-rule accord: failure to abrogate the clauses of the PLO’s covenant that call for the destruction of the Jewish state and failure to curb terrorism.
The first contention is a fact that cannot be disputed.
The best that can be said in Arafat’s defense on this score is that he has reportedly undertaken to have the offensive clauses repealed within two months after the interim-phase accord is signed.
The second contention, regarding the PLO’s curbing of terrorism, is a matter of dispute between the Rabin government and the opposition in Israel.
The bald facts are that Israeli fatalities have risen in the two years since the self-rule accord was signed.
The monitoring group Peace Watch, in a report issued this week, said the number of Israelis killed in attacks between September 1993 and September 1995 was 149. A total of 86 were killed in the preceding two years, according to the report.
The opposition points to the fact that most of the Israelis killed were the victims of suicide-bomb attacks launched by militant Islamic fundamentalists.
The Rabin government, on the other hand, cites mounting evidence of the Palestinian Authority’s grim fight against Hamas and Islamic Jihad as reflecting a revolutionary change among mainstream Palestinians – one that holds out the long-term promise of a genuine reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
But as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres recently noted, there is no reason to think that terrorists would have been less active had there been no peace process and had the occupation of Gaza continued.
The series of terror attacks, however they are interpreted by the government or the opposition, have proven that the way toward a full peace is strewn with obstacles.
And the coming years, regardless of which party holds sway in Israel, will doubtless see many more crises.