News Analysis: Arafat Moves to the Brink in Delaying Hebron Accord

It was shortly after midnight Sunday when the top Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sat down to talk.

The officials were cheerful. There were just a few points to clear, and an agreement seemed around the corner.

But then one objection led to another, and before long it was 5 o’clock Monday morning.

The much-spoken-of summit between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that would put the finishing touches on an agreement for an Israeli redeployment in Hebron did not materialize.

Within hours, Arafat was on a plane to Oslo, where almost two years ago he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

After unsuccessfully cajoling Arafat to remain until an agreement was signed, U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross also took his leave, saying that he was returning for consultations in Washington.

Netanyahu, left alone, summoned a news conference during which he blamed Arafat personally for stalling the talks.

Arafat seemed to be snubbing a host of leaders, most significantly President Clinton, who had phoned Netanyahu and Arafat the day before and urged them to work out a deal.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Hussein had placed similar calls to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

But Arafat nonetheless flew off to Europe — as if he had all the time in the world, as if it were not a prime Palestinian interest to implement the redeployment in Hebron.

Israeli policy-makers were puzzled.

Even Peres, opposition leader and former prime minister, said the details being worked out by the negotiators were similar to the provisions of the Interim Agreement signed last year in Washington.

In broad brush strokes, the negotiators agreed to a division of Hebron that would create a well-protected Jewish entity while leaving the entire city within the hands of the Arab municipality.

So, if the deal was so close, what happened?

The explanation of Dr. Ahmed Tibi, Arafat’s adviser, was that the Israeli negotiators wanted to deviate from the original agreement, but that Arafat would not tolerate any deviation.

Moreover, Tibi said, the Palestinian negotiators felt that the Israelis were motivated more by internal political pressures than by a desire to resolve the genuine problems that existed with their Palestinian counterparts.

But Tibi’s explanation ignored the internal pressures in Arafat’s own camp. And these may explain why Arafat preferred to delay inking an agreement.

Despite all the Palestinian maneuvering, despite all the Israeli concessions that evolved in the course of the negotiations, the Hebron agreement means, above all, Palestinian acceptance of an armed Jewish enclave within what the Palestinians perceive as an Arab city.

As Ehud Ya’ari, the Arab affairs analyst of Israel Television, put it, “Once the agreement is publicized, Arafat will have a lot of explaining to do to his own people. This will be a totally different agreement than the ones in Gaza and Nablus.”

Unlike the six other West Bank cities from which Israel withdrew last year under the terms of the Interim Agreement, Hebron will include a Jewish population.

And among that population is the most militant portion of the Jewish settler movement. Under the agreement, some 450 settlers will continue to live among the city’s 100,000 Palestinians.

At the same time, Hebron is the stronghold of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement in the West Bank; it is where the opposition to Arafat’s government is most menacing.

Once the agreement is implemented, and the Palestinians wake up to find out that Israeli army is still around to guard the settlers, the disappointment may be universal — and Hamas will surely take advantage of the frustrations.

As has already happened in Gaza, Arafat may have no choice but to respond with force.

To counter those potential frustrations, Arafat must be able to demonstrate that he held out for the best possible deal, that he got concessions from the Israelis.

Israeli officials say only three issues remained to be resolved: Israel’s demand for the right to pursue suspected terrorists in self-rule areas; freedom of movement for Israeli troops in Arab sections of Hebron; and whether to open a main street that links the Jewish and Arab enclaves in the volatile West Bank town.

So Arafat plays hard-to-get until the final hour, perhaps until after the U.S. elections, perhaps even later.

Arafat has proven in the past that he is a master of brinkmanship.

He did so when Israeli artillery bombarded Beirut in 1982, and he did it several times in the course of the negotiations with the Rabin government.

Shortly before the signing of the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn in September 1993, Arafat held things up when he wanted to introduce some last-minute changes in the agreement.

And he played similar tricks during the Cairo summit in May 1994, when he grandstanded before the eyes of the world, drawing world leaders to the side of the stage as he tried to squeeze out yet another Israeli concession.

And he is now doing it again, with the help of his top negotiators, Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s second-in-command, who is also known as Abu-Mazen, and Saeb Erekat.

It is these internal factors that help explain why Arafat is in no hurry.

He knows that after Hebron come the final-status negotiations — the hard issues such as Jerusalem, borders, settlements — which he cannot afford to enter if he is perceived by his own people as a political weakling.

Israeli observers are amazed at the huge gamble Arafat has taken in delaying the Hebron agreement.

They are amazed because they know what he knows: One major terrorist attack against Israelis could do away with whatever achievements the Palestinians have made in the talks and set the entire process back to square one.

But to survive the Hebron agreement, Arafat seems ready to gamble.

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