JERUSALEM (Aug. 31)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has grown too soft on the Palestinians — at least in the view of some of his ministers.
Hard-line members of the Israeli Cabinet are worried that Netanyahu is moving toward closing a deal with the Palestinian Authority that will transfer more West Bank land to Palestinian control despite recent terror attacks.
At Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, a debate raged over how to respond to last week’s terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv and to the recent murders of three Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
Ariel Sharon, the hard-line infrastructure minister, called for imposing a closure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a tactic frequently employed by Israel after previous terrorist attacks.
“It is unacceptable that 100,000 Palestinians will continue working in Israel after such acts. Israelis are murdered, and the Palestinian Authority goes on with business as usual. This must be stopped,” said Sharon.
Transportation Minister Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party also sought tough action, calling for a complete suspension of the Israeli- Palestinian negotiations until Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat cracks down on terrorists.
“Arafat has urged his people to burn the floor underneath the settlers,” said Yahalom. “Our reaction must be unequivocal.”
In the past, the bombing and murders would likely have prompted Netanyahu to suspend the negotiations.
But on Sunday, Netanyahu responded to the ministers’ complaints with some unusually positive words about the self-rule government.
Contrary to the situation in the past, he said, there is now no evidence of cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas militants.
Arafat himself could not have hoped for kinder words.
In view of recent Israeli-Palestinian tensions — provoked in no small measure by the nearly 18- month stalemate in the negotiations — Israeli political observers interpreted Netanyahu’s comments as an attempt to keep the talks afloat.
Without doubt, the premier could have found ample reason to take a different stance.
In the beginning of August, two settlers — Harel Ben-Nun, 18, and Shlomo Liebman, 24 — were shot dead while on a nighttime security patrol of Yizhar, a settlement of some 55 families near the West Bank town of Nablus.
Two weeks later, on Aug. 20, Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan was stabbed to death in his trailer home in Hebron by a suspected Palestinian intruder.
And on Aug. 27, a bomb exploded on a busy street during Tel Aviv’s morning rush hour. The attack left 21 people injured.
Just the same, the recently resumed negotiations on a further Israeli redeployment from the West Bank continue — although at a sluggish pace.
By most indications, there has been little progress. Netanyahu’s special envoy to the talks, Yitzhak Molcho, has met several times in recent days with Palestinian officials, including Arafat. Several obstacles were removed, but gaps still remain.
Following his meeting with Molcho, Arafat sent Netanyahu a letter in which he agreed to an Israeli proposal that a portion of the lands included in a U.S.- sponsored proposal for a 13 percent redeployment in the West Bank be considered a nature preserve. This would prevent the Palestinians from launching any construction projects in the area, which comprises some 3 percent of the proposed pullback.
But in his letter, Arafat rejected most of the Israeli conditions for bringing the talks to a successful conclusion.
A major stumbling block is who will have responsibility for security in the preserve. Israel is demanding total security control. Arafat wants to share in these responsibilities.
There are other points of contention:
The Palestinian Covenant: Netanyahu is sticking to his demand that the full Palestine National Council be convened to revoke the anti-Israel clauses in the Palestinian charter. Arafat maintains that the smaller Central Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization can do the job just as well.
Extraditing terrorists: Israel wants the Palestinian Authority to transfer terror suspects to the Jewish state. The Palestinians want to try such suspects themselves.
Reciprocity: Israel insists that it will redeploy from additional portions of the West Bank only after the Palestinians fulfill their security commitments toward Israel. The Palestinians insist that such moves take place simultaneously.
The two sides are acting as though they have all the time in the world, but according to some Israeli officials, the premier has a reason for not wanting to rush.
There is a power struggle taking place in the Palestinian camp, the officials say, and Netanyahu is waiting to see who emerges victorious.
Ahmed Karia, the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council who recently held talks with Molcho, is pushing for a moderate line. Meanwhile, the two officials who have steered the Palestinian negotiating team in recent months – – Saeb Erekat and Arafat’s second-in-command, Mahmoud Abbas — feel that they are being co-opted by Karia and are calling on Arafat to take a tougher line toward Israel.
The Israeli officials say this has given Netanyahu ample reason to take a wait- and-see stance.
Meanwhile, Arafat does not believe that Netanyahu means business.
He reportedly wrote a letter to President Clinton last week questioning Israeli intentions to carry out any further West Bank redeployments.
Arafat wrote that Netanyahu will find a pretext not to carry out the 13 percent redeployment and will also avoid another pullback that was to have been accomplished by the end of August.
Arafat rejected a redeployment offered by Israel last year, saying not enough land was involved.
He reportedly told U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross in Oslo last week — and repeated the message during a meeting with Molcho in the Gaza Strip — that he feared that even if he were to reach an agreement with Israel, Netanyahu would not implement it because of pressures from Israel’s right wing.
But, by the same token, one may question whether Arafat can fulfill an agreement.
He, too, suffers from growing difficulties on the home front.
This week he approved for the first time the use of capital punishment in a case involving two Palestinian policemen.
The two, who were brothers, were convicted in a hasty trial on charges of murdering two other policemen, who were also brothers, in a family feud in Gaza’s Nusseirat refugee camp.
Arafat approved the death sentences, which were carried out Monday, because of growing Palestinian demands that he crack down against the growing brutality of Palestinian security forces against their own people.
Arafat also walks a delicate tightrope with Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, whose ability to rally the masses remains strong.
Indeed, last week’s bombing in Tel Aviv came one day after Yassin called for attacks on Israel to retaliate for the recent U.S. missile strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan.
Arafat, like Netanyahu, faces too many internal pressures to allow himself to be too generous in the negotiations.
Some optimistic observers believe that the hard-to-get tactics currently adopted by both sides are but part of the end game for a soon-to-be-concluded agreement.
They believe that the two sides will sign an agreement Sept. 13 — the fifth anniversary of the signing of the first Oslo accord on the White House lawn.
But given the pace of negotiations — and the acts of violence accompanying them — the pessimists are not about to abandon their positions anytime soon.