News Analysis: Evolving Hebron Deal Marks Policy Shifts for Netanyahu

Beyond the fine print and lawyerly arguments of the evolving Hebron agreement, a new reality is emerging, with potentially major consequences for Israeli politics.

The Likud-led coalition is on the verge of a sea change in its approach to the Palestinians.

It not only is about to undertake a traumatic transfer of land — most of Hebron.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also has committed his government to further withdrawals over the next 18 months from more areas of the West Bank that are dear to the national camp, the conservative and religious parties that make up the governing coalition.

The division between Likud and Labor over the peace process with the Palestinians has become one of degree.

Before, the two main parties were divided over whether to transfer West Bank lands to the Palestinians. Now they are divided over when and how much land to cede.

The shift from the realm of ideology to that of pragmatism may increase the prospects of a national unity government as the peace process proceeds and as the prime minister finds it harder to keep his coalition united and supportive.

The leaders of the Yesha Council, the main settler movement, were doing their utmost this week to foil Netanyahu’s efforts to ensure a Cabinet majority for the emerging agreement.

“This is the time, in the words of the Book of Esther for ‘the Jews to gather themselves together and to stand for their life,’” Hebron settler leader Noam Arnon said somberly.

The eleventh-hour tactics of the disillusioned and apprehensive Hebron settlers were not to take their battle onto the streets of the tension-filled city, but to confine themselves to intensive, anguished lobbying in Jerusalem.

The timetable from signing an agreement to a Cabinet vote was not clear.

Although Netanyahu appeared set to win a majority of Cabinet support for the Hebron agreement, the size of the dissenting group of ministers was likely to be a major embarrassment.

Seven of his 18 ministers have already declared that they would vote against the agreement, including Likud stalwarts Science Minister Ze’ev “Benny” Begin and Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon.

Also among the opponents were the two ministers from the National Religious Party, whose nine Knesset seats are pivotal for the continued existence of the Netanyahu government.

But even within the NRP, fissures were beginning to appear.

The hard-line party faction chairman, Knesset member Hanan Porat, was demanding that the Netanyahu government be toppled.

But cooler voices, among them Education Minister Zevulun Hammer, know that Netanyahu would then turn to Labor’s Shimon Peres with an offer of a unity government.

To avoid this, Hammer appeared to be willing to swallow Netanyahu’s move toward pragmatism.

“Historic decisions lie ahead,” said Hammer. “We want to be part of shaping them.”

The breakthrough in the long-deadlocked negotiations came this week, when Jordan’s King Hussein threw his personal weight and prestige into the fray, flying to the Gaza Strip and then to Tel Aviv to help bridge the final gaps.

After his separate meetings with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, there was a definite change in the air.

More than ever before in the 15 weeks of intensive Hebron negotiations, and despite the many previous false alarms that a signing ceremony was imminent, this week there was an air of inexorability.

The negotiations over Hebron have broadened far beyond the complicated questions of security on the ground in the West Bank town.

Based on a compromise suggested by U.S. Special Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross — which Hussein urged Arafat to accept — the agreement now contains a reaffirmation by the two sides of a timetable for three additional redeployments in rural areas of the West Bank.

Under the terms of the 1995 Interim Agreement, the three redeployments were to be completed by September.

Ross’ compromise called for them to be completed by September 1998 — a year later than Arafat demanded, a year earlier than Netanyahu offered.

In American “notes for the record” that accompany the agreement, the Israelis and Palestinians also agree to fulfill other portions of the Interim Agreement that each side has angrily accused the other of failing to do.

It is now Netanyahu’s job to convince his splintered coalition that he has gotten far more than he has given away.

But for many in the national camp, the timetable of further redeployments in the West Bank is difficult to accept.

In his conversations with key ministers who were still wavering this week, Netanyahu sought to persuade them that the further redeployments negotiated in the Hebron accord should be seen as a significant achievement.

The new agreement, he can argue, calls for the final redeployment to be carried out a year later than originally envisioned in the Interim Agreement.

But opponents of the accord insist that Netanyahu has nonetheless made a major concession: He has agreed to make that crucial third redeployment before the end of the permancent-status negotiations, which are stated to be completed by May 1999.

This means, according to opponents, that Israeli negotiators will be entering those final, vital stages of the talks without some territorial assets in the West Bank that Israel previously held.

Netanyahu’s earlier position in the negotiations had been that the third redeployment should take place simultaneously with the scheduled end of the permanent-status talks, a situation that would have given Israel considerable leverage in those talks.

The opponents say that had Netanyahu not acceded to Arafat’s demand that the Hebron redeployment be linked to the three further redeployments, he would have had overwhelming support for a “Hebron only” agreement in his Cabinet.

Similarly, say the opponents, had Netanyahu insisted on his original demand for timing the third redeployment with the conclusion of the permanent-status talks, he would likewise have secured a comfortable majority.

Giving ground on both of these issues, they say, has compromised his credibility as a tough negotiator.

As a result, fears that he is ultimately a pragmatist rather than an ideologue have resurfaced in his own camp.

Netanyahu maintains that the Interim Agreement does not spell out the amount of West Bank land to be handed over in the further redeployments and that he fully intends to keep them modest — thereby arriving at the end of the final-status negotiations with much of the West Bank still in Israel’s hands.

Moreover, say the premier’s aides, the further redeployments will be contingent upon the Palestinians’ fulfilling various obligations that they have not yet fulfilled — and may still prove reluctant to fulfill.

In this week’s negotiations, for instance, the two sides were reported to be stuck over the Palestinians’ adamant refusal to agree to extradite prisoners convicted of terror attacks on Israelis — one of Israel’s conditions for proceeding with the further redeployments.

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