JERUSALEM (Dec. 16)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a difficult balancing act.
Now, after his Cabinet agreed on a new pro-settlement policy, he is seeking to persuade an anxious world that the policy will not mean new or bigger settlements.
At the same time, the premier is seeking to persuade the settlers themselves that the new policy will be more than mere words.
Netanyahu also faces members of his coalition, who are not united behind the settlement policy, and an opposition railing against the policy as endangering the entire peace process.
Beyond that, the United States and other countries have pressed Israel not to embark on a new settlement drive, warning that it would bury the peace process under a surge of new Palestinian protests and violence.
Even President Clinton this week criticized Israel for taking steps that could pre-empt the outcome of further Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
One unexpected byproduct of the controversy surrounding Israel’s latest move on settlements, however, was the resumption of the stalled talks on redeploying Israeli forces from most of Hebron.
A Netanyahu adviser, Israeli lawyer Yitzhak Molcho, met with Palestinian official Saeb Erekat Monday night in Jerusalem, the first time that the two sides had met in more than 10 days.
The meeting came after Netanyahu told Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat in a telephone conversation Sunday night that the new policy did not mean expanding settlements or confiscating Palestinian land.
The Cabinet agreed to the new policy last Friday, 36 hours after terrorists belonging to the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine opened fire on a settler family from Beit El that had been traveling on a West Bank road.
Ita Tzur, 42, and her son, Ephraim, 12, were killed in the attack, which also wounded the father, Yoel, and four daughters.
Settlement leaders immediately demanded what they termed “a fitting Zionist response” — in the form of building 1,000 new homes near Beit El.
Some demanded that a new settlement be founded at once on the precise site of the attack.
Only in this way, said Pinchas Wallerstein, chairman of the settlers’ Yesha Council, would the Palestinians be deterred from such acts.
According to settlement sources who spoke to the pro-settler newspaper Hatzofeh, the organ of the National Religious Party, Netanyahu indicated to the settlement leaders Dec. 11, immediately after the shooting occurred, that he sympathized with their demands and would go along with them.
But in the hours that followed, according to these and other sources, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Foreign Minister David Levy, backed by top defense and security aides, dissuaded the prime minister from taking any drastic actions.
According to leaked reports from top-level consultations, the head of the Shin Bet domestic security service, Ami Ayalon, warned that the Palestinian territories would explode into violence if Palestinians saw that Israel was embarking on new settlement building instead of concluding negotiations on redeploying Israeli forces from most of Hebron.
As a compromise, the Cabinet agreed to grant the settlements special tax breaks and other financial benefits similar to those given by the government to development towns in Israel and communities on the northern border.
The benefits had been rescinded in 1992 by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Only one Cabinet member, Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani of the Third Way Party, opposed last Friday’s decision to restore the subsidies.
He argued that a new impetus to settlement activity would condemn Israel and the Palestinians to live locked in their deadly embrace forever.
Levy agreed with the majority vote, but he later declared that his Gesher Party would support implementation of the subsidies only if the development towns and poor urban areas did not suffer as a result of it.
Deputy Finance Minister David Magen of Gesher publicly criticized the Cabinet decision as “mixed up” and not properly thought out.
Settler leaders, while welcoming the Cabinet decision, continued to indicate privately that they had been assured that there would also be more settlement construction, including in Beit El.
Among the opposition, Labor leader Shimon Peres condemned the Cabinet decision as a triumph for the terrorists, adding that it inevitably weakened the peace process and its advocates on the Palestinian side.
Knesset member Yossi Beilin, a contender for the future Labor leadership, poured scorn on the Cabinet decision.
He claimed that the government had quickly informed key capitals abroad that the decision was “only declarative” and would not in fact result in new settlement activity.
The government, for its part, confirmed that Levy had instructed embassies abroad to explain to their host governments that the Cabinet decision was in concert with the Israeli government’s commitment to the peace process.
These same foreign governments, of course, received very different messages from the Palestinians.
Arafat warned over the weekend that the Cabinet decision was tantamount to a declaration of war on the peace process.
There were warnings — both from the Palestinians and from Israeli experts – - of a new outbreak of popular violence far worse than the Palestinian rioting that erupted in late September.
The Clinton administration publicly voiced its concern about the Cabinet move, as did the leadership of the European Union.
Behind the scenes, U.S. diplomacy swung into high gear in an urgent effort to bring about some relaxation in the ominous buildup of Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
U.S. officials told Jerusalem in straightforward terms that there was no way Arafat could or would sign the Hebron accord in the shadow of new settlement activity.
“Netanyahu can’t have it both ways,” the Israeli daily Ha’aretz quoted Washington sources as saying. “He can’t continue the Oslo process and at the same time expand the settlements.”
Clinton, referring to settlements, said Monday that nothing “should be done which would, in effect, be seen as pre-empting the outcome of something they’ve already agreed should be part of the final negotiations.” He was referring to the Israeli-Palestinian agreement to deal with settlements in the final-status talks.
The Clinton administration’s comments, public and private, were reinforced by a letter sent by eight former senior U.S. diplomats to Netanyahu over the weekend — and published Monday — urging Israel not to embark on a new settlement effort.
The signatories included three former secretaries of state — James Baker, Cyrus Vance and Lawrence Eagleburger — and five other former U.S. officials, including Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scrowcroft, former national security advisers.
David Bar-Illan, a senior aide to Netanyahu, rejected the letter, saying that the signatories had always been confrontational with Israel.
Three other former secretaries — George Shultz, Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger — refused to join in the letter.
“Israel’s real friends not only refused to sign this letter but are expressing their support for our policies all the time,” Bar-Illan told Israel Radio.
Meanwhile, American mediation efforts led to a meeting Sunday evening in the Gaza Strip between Arafat and two of Netanyahu’s close aides, Danny Naveh, the Cabinet secretary, and Yitzhak Molcho, a private attorney.
Immediately after that conversation, Netanyahu and Arafat spoke directly by telephone and committed to a new effort to conclude the Hebron agreement.
Arafat expressed his deep regret over the Tzur murders, and Netanyahu voiced his own regret at the mistaken fatal shooting of a Palestinian worker by a Gaza settler over the weekend.
Just the same, the overall picture remains unclear — and is still fraught with explosive tension.