JERUSALEM (Jan. 15)
Beyond the fine print and lawyerly arguments of the Hebron agreement sealed this week, a new reality has emerged in the Israeli political landscape.
The Likud-led coalition, seven months after its election, is undergoing a sea change in its approach to the Palestinians.
It not only has agreed to a traumatic transfer of land representing about 80 percent of Hebron. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also 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, including the conservative and religious parties that make up the governing coalition.
With the stalled peace process now unfrozen, the division between Likud and Labor has now 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 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.
“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 on the eve of the accord.
Their lobbying efforts came as the Cabinet convened Wednesday to ratify the agreement reached in the early hours of the day at a summit between Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
After a meeting lasting nearly 12 hours, the Cabinet approved the agreement by a vote of 11-7. The often stormy session was disrupted at one point by a report, later denied by the United States, that the extent of a series of Israeli redeployments from rural areas of the West Bank would be subject to American approval.
The Cabinet of the Palestinian Authority also approved the agreement Wednesday.
Netanyahu was expected to win a broad majority of support for the agreement in the Knesset this week.
The agreement calls for the redeployment in Hebron to be carried out within 10 days of the signing. It is expected that the redeployment will take place even before that.
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 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 Interim Agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinians in 1995, 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 and a year earlier than Netanyahu offered.
In the American “note for the record” that accompanies the agreement, the Israelis and Palestinians also agreed to fulfill other portions of the Interim Agreement that each side has angrily accused the other of failing to do.
For his part, Netanyahu had to convince his splintered coalition that he had gotten far more than he had given away.
But for many in the national camp, the timetable of further redeployments in the West Bank is difficult to accept.
Although the final redeployment is now scheduled to be carried out a year later than originally envisioned in the Interim Agreement, opponents of the accord insist that Netanyahu has made a critical concession: He has agreed to make that crucial third redeployment before the end of the permanent-status negotiations, which are slated 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.
Those same opponents would have liked to have seen Netanyahu stick to his original demand for timing the third redeployment with the conclusion of the permanent-status talks.
Giving ground on both of these issues, they say, compromised his credibility as a tough negotiator.
For his part, 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 that amount modest.
His goal is to arrive at the end of the final-status negotiations, when the issues of Jerusalem, settlements and borders are to be broached, 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.
Palestinian compliance in the area of combatting terrorism, one of the commitments spelled out in the American “note for the record,” will be one factor the Israeli government will watch carefully as it contemplates the further redeployments.
Israeli leaders also claimed success in that the United States, in the “note for the record,” implicitly acceded to Israel’s right to determine the dimensions of military locations on the West Bank from which it will not withdraw during the process of further redeployments.
This could grant Israel considerable latitude in determining how much of the West Bank to hand over in the further redeployments.
But U.S. sources said Washington would not support an Israeli definition of such locations that was excessive and unacceptable to the Palestinians.
On Wednesday, meanwhile, Netanyahu and Arafat enjoyed a day of international popularity as the agreement was greeted by accolades from the European Union, the United Nations and a host of other countries from around the world.
President Clinton, at a hastily arranged news conference shortly after the agreement was reached, applauded the step.
“The forces of peace have prevailed over a history of division,” he said.
But he also sounded a cautionary note, adding that the agreement is “not an end in itself” and that “bringing its words to life will require active and continuous cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian officials.”