News Analysis: Netanyahu’s Push to Move IDF from Hebron Dismays Hard-liners

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to press for the redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron has placed him at loggerheads with hard-liners in his governing coalition.

Only last week, Netanyahu had received kudos from the right for standing firm in meetings with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat and President Clinton at the emergency summit in Washington.

Returning from Washington, Netanyahu was feted by youngsters of the National Religious Party’s Bnei Akiva youth movement who congregated along the highway from Ben-Gurion Airport and in the streets of Jerusalem, waving banners urging him to “be stronger and of good courage.”

But as Israeli-Palestinian talks reopened Sunday night, at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza, the enthusiasm for Netanyahu in the national religious camp visibly cooled.

Similarly, the prime minister was criticized by members of his own Likud Party.

“It’s sometimes difficult to explain the policy when you don’t know what it is,” said Knesset member Reuven Rivlin, wondering whether the premier was about to abandon the Likud’s Greater Israel ideology.

Other Likud hard-liners, among them Science Minister Ze’ev “Benny” Begin and Uzi Landau, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs Committee, have indicated that they will vote in the Knesset against measures leading to the Israel Defense Force’s redeployment in Hebron.

While the previous Labor government had agreed to withdraw from most of Hebron, the only Palestinian town still patrolled by Israeli troops, the move has been delayed since March out of concern for the security of some 450 Jewish settlers and Jewish holy places.

Netanyahu has said he would uphold the agreement to redeploy Israeli troops, but wants to negotiate modifications that would take into account the security needs of Hebron settlers.

But this week Netanyahu was signaling clearly that the long-delayed redeployment would be carried out within a relatively short time.

Indeed, some sources around the premier suggested that Netanyahu, having made his decision, will vacate much of the city by Nov. 5, assuming that the Palestinians go along with his demands for “adjustments” in the original accord.

Although Netanyahu has repeatedly denied that there was any definite deal between him and Clinton on a date for redeployment, it would seem politically astute for the Israeli leader to offer the president this goodwill gesture in advance of Election Day.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Israeli and Palestinian officials began tackling the focal point of their negotiations, the Hebron redeployment, after a ceremonial first round of talks the evening before that were devoted mostly to procedural matters.

At the Sunday session, the two sides agreed to form three subcommittees to deal with Hebron, security issues and economic issues.

Addressing the Likud Knesset faction Sunday, Netanyahu, to the chagrin of the hardliners, said the negotiations were in earnest.

Israel’s requirements, he said, were twofold: to ensure the existence and safety of the settlers in Hebron, “the oldest Jewish community on earth,” and to ensure safe access to and control of the Jewish holy places in the city.

Israeli sources indicated that what was being demanded by way of adjustments was a reduction in the strength of the Palestinian police force to be deployed in Hebron, particularly close to the areas of Jewish settlement. One proposal believed to be on the table would restrict these police officers to carrying only sidearms and not assault rifles.

The concern for adjustments increased after some Palestinian police turned their weapons on Israeli soldiers late last month during three days of rioting sparked by the opening of a new entrance to a tunnel near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The West Bank and Gaza Strip clashes, which left 15 Israelis and 60 Palestinians dead, have spurred the two sides to get the peace process back on track.

The entire international community seems to have mobilized this week to bolster Netanyahu’s apparent intention to come through on Hebron, which is widely viewed as a litmus test for advancing Israeli-Palestinian relations.

U.S. Secretary of State Christopher, en route to West Africa, held high-profile meetings on Sunday with Netanyahu as well as with Foreign Minister David Levy and President Ezer Weizman.

After these sessions, word was quickly relayed to the media that Christopher had been encouraged by Levy’s relative pragmatism and moderation, and by Weizman’s enthusiastic attempts to nudge the peace process forward.

Weizman, carrying out an earlier pledge to invite Arafat to his private home in Caesarea, hosted the Palestinian leader for lunch Tuesday. Speaking at a joint news conference, the two called for an end to violence and renewed efforts to advance the peace process. Arafat promised that Palestinian police would not fire again on Israeli soldiers.

European leaders also have been anxious to lend their support to the renewed efforts to put the bruised peace process back together.

Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring, whose country holds the rotating presidency to the European Union, arrived here Sunday to conduct his own talks with the political leadership. While Israel appears to have rejected a Palestinian proposal that an E.U. emissary participate at the talks alongside U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, Spring’s presence in the area was intended to register the E.U.’s intense desire to see the talks succeed.

Meanwhile, within Netanyahu’s coalition, the forces supporting a more moderate line were regrouping to back the premier’s decision to bring about the redeployment.

Knesset member Yehuda Harel, the moving spirit in the Third Way Party, said Monday that his faction would demand that the Hebron redeployment go forward, a view also supported by the Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party.

Yisrael Ba’Aliyah was also expected to give its backing to the redeployment when a Knesset vote comes, despite party leader Natan Sharansky’s reservations expressed during the Washington summit.

In the end, however, Netanyahu can count on the opposition if he finds himself short of a vote or two.

“He needn’t worry about Begin or Landau,” said Labor Knesset member Yossi Beilin, “I will give him my vote instead of theirs.”

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