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News Analysis: Renewed Negotiations Intensify Internal Israeli Political Wrangling

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The political game of bluff and counter-bluff picked up speed in Israel this week.

In the view of Israeli politicians at least, this provided palpable evidence that the peace process is moving at last toward its moment of truth.

The quickening pace of the domestic political wrangling was triggered by the resumption of long-suspended direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In talks strongly urged by the United States, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s top deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, met Sunday in Tel Aviv, and since then small teams of officials have been convening in an attempt to narrow the outstanding gaps.

All this has heartened Israeli moderates and rattled the hard-liners.

On the right flank of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, the National Religious Party debated whether to issue a formal call for early elections — as a way of signaling to the prime minister that it would rather bring him down than accede to a redeployment accord with the Palestinians.

Also on the right, hawkish Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon warned that concessions by the prime minister and the defense minister could spell disaster for the country — and would definitely spell the downfall of the government.

Sharon is on an official visit to China. But he did not allow distance to weaken his criticism, giving voice to his sentiments on the air waves and in telephone briefings to colleagues and reporters.

Another powerful voice of opposition from the right came from Rafael Eitan, the minister of agriculture and head of the Tsomet Party, which ran with Likud in the 1996 elections.

Eitan threatened Tuesday to bolt the government if Netanyahu handed over more than 7 percent of the West Bank.

The U.S. proposal currently being negotiated calls for a 13 further redeployment, coupled with concrete steps by the Palestinians on security issues.

The Palestinians have already accepted the proposal. Now, Netanyahu must decide whether he will defy his hard-liners and accept it, too.

Meanwhile, on the left flank of the governing coalition, the four-member Third Way Party recently issued an ultimatum: Either a redeployment deal is reached by July 29 or it would secede from the government.

This threat was later softened by one member of the party, Emanuel Zismann, who told the prime minister Tuesday that his party would “consider” seceding” if the deadline was not met.

Also active among the moderate coalition members was the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, which pronounced itself anxious to see the negotiations with the Palestinians wrapped up as soon as possible.

Other ministers and prominent coalition Knesset members on the moderate wing of the government also weighed in, behind a thin veil of anonymity, in favor of concluding the deal with the Palestinians along the lines of the American proposal.

Adding his weight to these forces, President Ezer Weizman came out Tuesday in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot with a public call for a government of national unity.

Some observers saw the president’s move as a tactical step, designed to pressure the coalition hard-liners to fall in line or risk Netanyahu bringing the Labor Party into his government in their place.

Others interpreted it as simply another attempt by the pro-peace president to change the complexion of the present government.

Weizman has been openly and bluntly critical of Netanyahu in recent weeks, accusing him outright of letting the chance for peace slip away and leading the country toward new violence.

Despite the resumption of direct talks, however, and despite the heightened domestic political activity, the prospect of a substantive breakthrough remained uncertain.

The Palestinians glumly insisted that the meeting with Mordechai and the subsequent lower-level negotiations had produced no meaningful progress.

Yet on Tuesday, Arafat made an unannounced trip to Cairo to report on the talks with the Israelis to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Presumably, if there had been no progress, there would have been nothing to report and no reason to go to Cairo.

On the Israeli side, meanwhile, officials were making a concerted effort to depict the negotiations in a positive light.

Their efforts were especially designed to downplay differences between Netanyahu and Washington, and similarly to paper over disagreements within the Cabinet.

Israeli officials hinted early in the week that there was agreement, or imminent agreement, on a proposal under which 3 percent of the 13 percent further West Bank redeployment proposed by the United States be set aside for nature reserves.

As a result, the Palestinian Authority would be barred from building on this land.

The Palestinian side, however, was quick to deny that it had made such a concession.

After retracting their earlier demands for a greater further redeployment, the Palestinians said they were not about to compromise further by allowing themselves to be told what purpose the land should serve.

Similarly, the Palestinians denied upbeat Israeli reporting of an imminent breakthrough on the issue of the abrogation of the Palestinian Covenant.

Israeli sources claimed the negotiators were contemplating the convening of the PLO General Council in order to take the formal step of abrogating the covenant’s anti-Israel clauses. This body is smaller than the Palestine National Council, the parliament-in-exile that Israel originally demanded be convened in order to abrogate the covenant.

But it is larger, and therefore more authoritative, than the 18-member PLO Executive Committee, the body that Arafat has suggested would meet to change the document.

The Palestinians maintain that the covenant was abrogated by the PNC in April 1996, at the request of then-Israeli Premier Shimon Peres, with the abrogation subsequently reconfirmed in a letter from Arafat to President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in January of this year.

But the Likud has never accepted that abrogation as sufficiently explicit and absolute.

The U.S. position, reiterated by the State Department on Monday, tends toward the Palestinian view.

The dual uncertainty — on the political front and on the negotiating front – – has existed for months.

This week’s acceleration of the pace may signal that a decision — one way or another — will be reached before the Knesset summer recess, which begins at the end of the month.

The pundits — those who believe that Netanyahu will ultimately close a deal with the Palestinians and those who are sure he won’t — continue to argue among themselves.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, assures everyone that he is determined to make a deal, and that threats from inside his coalition will not deter him.

One thing, though, is certain, and its very certainty is a sad reflection of the reality in the region.

Downtown Jerusalem was saved by a whisker this week from another terrorist massacre, when a van driven by a member of Hamas caught fire before its cargo of explosives could be detonated.

Had the car bomb gone off, as Hamas apparently planned, there would have been no resumption of talks, no acceleration of the political struggle between hawks and doves and no heightened international pressure to promote an agreement.

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