News Analysis: Growing International Pressure Creates Quandary for Netanyahu

Amid growing international pressure for Israel to give the Palestinians more West Bank territory, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting back.

And the gloves are off.

Last week, Netanyahu suddenly cut short a meeting with the visiting British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and canceled a planned state dinner after Cook met with a Palestinian legislator at the controversial Har Homa construction site in southeastern Jerusalem.

Cook came to Israel hoping to lead the European Union, which currently is headed by London, to a seat at the Middle East peace negotiating table. But by the end of his visit, Cook had navigated into a culde-sac, setting back Europe’s aspirations to be a central player in the peace process.

Having seized an opportunity to get the E.U. off his back, Netanyahu then turned his attention back toward Washington, where the Clinton administration has been considering presenting its own plan to move the peace process forward.

The plan reportedly calls for an Israeli withdrawal from 13.1 percent of the West Bank during a 12-week period in return for Palestinian fulfillment of its commitments on security.

U.S. officials have reportedly threatened to publicly criticize either side that rejects the proposal. While the Palestinians want much more land transferred, they have reluctantly indicated that they would accept the U.S. plan because it would produce some movement.

Not so with Israel, which has sought to head off the American initiative.

Netanyahu reportedly told President Clinton over the weekend that his coalition would not last 10 minutes if he were to embrace the American proposal. He was referring to the conservative factions represented in the Israeli Cabinet – - and in his own Likud Party.

Indeed, Likud Knesset member Michael Kleiner, who heads a hard-line group of lawmakers, threatened to bring down the government if it agreed to a redeployment in excess of 9 percent.

Netanyahu appealed to Clinton in two lengthy telephone conversations last week to confine the United States to its mediator role and not put forward it own plan.

On Sunday, Netanyahu upped the ante, when his Cabinet, displaying rare unanimity, rejected the reported U.S. plan, saying it was “damaging to the security interests” of the Jewish state.

The most Israel would be prepared to offer is 9 percent of the West Bank land it still controls, according to the government. But such a pullback would be based on a clear understanding by all parties that there would be no additional redeployments until the final-status talks are concluded.

U.S. officials, taking issue with Israel’s stance, have maintained that if 9 percent does not endanger security, it is unlikely that another 4 percent would be hazardous.

The two allies seemed headed for a public showdown.

avert an open confrontation on the eve of a scheduled visit to Israel and Gaza later this week by Dennis Ross, the U.S. Middle East special coordinator.

Addressing the United Jewish Appeal’s Young Leadership Conference in Washington, Vice President Al Gore said that Israel has the right to determine its own peace and security.

Ross, who also spoke at the UJA gathering, said he was going to Israel to “finalize” American ideas to revive the dormant peace talks. But Ross also stressed that there would not be any imposed solution.

The U.S. officials’ comments came as a senior Netanyahu aide said Israel had “no desire for confrontation” with the United States.

What caused this shift — and what has Netanyahu been trying to achieve?

Some observers in Israel believe that Netanyahu simply cannot make the concessions that Washington wants either for his own ideological reasons or because of the strong opposition within the coalition. In this scenario, the prime minister has no sophisticated strategic game plan — he is just determined to dig in and hold fast.

Ideally, the Israeli leader has been hoping that Clinton would climb down in the face of a major confrontation with Israel. This outcome has been contingent, above all, on Jerusalem’s ability to rally all or most of the American Jewish community and the Republican-dominated Congress to its cause.

One sign of unqualified support for the Netanyahu government came this week from the leader of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

“These latest developments are so troubling because they threaten to undo so much good and send us down a path from which it will be difficult to return,” Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said in his address to the UJA conference Tuesday.

“The State Department is now veering toward an approach that has never worked in the past and in fact has only been counterproductive,” Kohr said. “Their idea of promulgating a so-called `American plan’ and then using pressure tactics to try to coerce Israel into accepting it has been tried repeatedly and has never worked.”

While the Clinton administration has not yet made a decision on whether to go ahead with its own plan, it was apparently startled by the intensity of Israel’s reaction — and especially by Netanyahu’s apparent intention to rally all of Israel’s traditional friends in Washington and across the country in order to fight the White House over the reported plan.

Israeli diplomats, in recent weeks, have been busily briefing congressional leaders and Jewish organizational leaders on the government’s position. Several ministers have been dispatched to the United States to bolster the effort to win over political and public opinion.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who is widely seen as the key moderate in the Cabinet, went on record Monday — just days before his arrival in Washington — as staunchly opposing the 13.1 percent proposal.

“It is not acceptable to me,” declared Mordechai, thereby scotching any speculation of discord between him and Netanyahu over the government’s position on the peace process.

Mordechai would prefer that the international community focus on helping Israel extricate its forces from southern Lebanon.

Israeli officials have recently voiced their support of U.N. Security Council Resolution 425 — which was issued 20 years ago and called for an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon — on the condition that the Lebanese government steps in and maintains peace in the region.

Mordechai won support in principle for this initiative from U.N. Secretary- General Kofi Annan, who met with Israeli leaders Tuesday after visiting Lebanon and Syria.

And the defense minister hopes to garner support from Washington.

Given Netanyahu’s deliberately high-profile handling of the public campaign against the anticipated U.S. plan, some observers here were fearful of a serious deterioration in relations with the United States.

The prime minister, however, was determined to project an image of calm in the face of this daunting prospect.

“We greatly respect the U.S.,” Netanyahu said Monday. “But Israel’s security requirements will be determined solely by Israel’s government.”

While the prime minister enjoyed unquestionable support within his coalition for his showdown with Washington, a poll released this week revealed that the Israeli public favored a more assertive American role.

Some 85 percent of Israelis surveyed in a poll conducted by the Israeli polling firm Dahaf supported the Clinton administration suggesting ideas and making proposals in private to bridge the gaps between the two sides.

It is also possible that Netanyahu may seriously consider an American proposal. In this scenario, he would agree to a double-digit redeployment if he could convince Washington to agree that there be no more redeployments until a permanent agreement with the Palestinians is achieved.

The hard-liners in his coalition would not be pleased, but Netanyahu believes that at the end of the day the hard-liners have nowhere else to go and will not topple his government.

But Washington is unlikely to ditch the additional redeployments, which are part of the Oslo accords — and an American-Israeli showdown may still loom on the horizon.

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