JERUSALEM (Oct. 14)
It is hard to imagine that Israeli and Palestinian leaders, having agreed to attend this week’s summit in Maryland, will walk out without producing an agreement.
If either Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat remain stubborn over details and refuse to reach a long- delayed agreement, the problems they will be creating for President Clinton may well be reciprocated.
To be sure, Clinton is wounded because of his own domestic problems. But he is not so weak that he would not exact a price on whoever thwarts his drive for a much-needed foreign policy success.
The outlook in Jerusalem, therefore, is that this time the moment of truth is finally at hand, at least in terms of the further Israeli redeployment from the West Bank.
With the size of the pullback — 13 percent — no longer in dispute, the negotiators, who were slated to begin meeting Thursday, will be focusing on the security aspects of their evolving accord.
The goodwill hopefully being fostered in the relative seclusion of the summit site — the Wye Plantation in eastern Maryland — may help restore at least a modicum of confidence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Whether the agreement they are expected to reach will be carried out smoothly is less likely, in the eyes of many observers, given the many pitfalls and setbacks that can arise during its three-month implementation period.
If this optimistic scenario regarding the Wye summit does not pan out, then Netanyahu’s purpose — as made very clear during the run-up period to the meeting by his aides — will be to convince American opinion that Arafat is the culprit, that his recalcitrance is the cause of the dashed hopes.
Indeed, focusing on the security issue, Netanyahu told reporters after meeting with Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan on Wednesday that he would go “a long way” toward negotiating an agreement if the Palestinians take steps to crack down on terrorism.
Netanyahu’s visit to Jordan came a day after a suspected terrorist attack in the West Bank that killed one Israeli, Itamar Doron, 24, and wounded another, 27-year-old Ilan Mazon, in a drive-by shooting.
After the attack, the prime minister’s office released a statement saying there was no chance “at this stage” of reaching an agreement.
A Knesset member from Netanyahu’s Likud Party went even further. Uzi Landau, the chairman of the Knesset Security and Foreign Affairs Committee, urged Netanyahu Tuesday to suspend his participation in the Washington summit.
Tuesday’s statement by the prime minister echoed his stern comments last Friday in the wake of a fatal stabbing of a female soldier in the Jordan Valley.
“This brutal slaying only demonstrates the need for us to stand firm on the issues we are indeed standing firm on,” Netanyahu said.
Cpl. Michal Adato, 19, was stabbed near the settlement of Tomer in the Jordan Valley. Her attacker — labeled a Palestinian terrorist by the Israeli government — was shot in the legs by troops who witnessed the incident and was placed under guard at a nearby hospital.
With a special sense for political timing, Netanyahu combined his statement of outrage over the soldier’s killing with a formal announcement that Ariel Sharon, champion of the hard-line camp, was to be appointed foreign minister and would be accompanying him to the summit.
The appointment, approved by the Cabinet on Tuesday, is seen as a masterstroke designed to sow division and discomfort among the political right, which has been breathing fire and brimstone in advance of the summit.
Ministers from the National Religious Party, along with hard-line Knesset members from the Land of Israel bloc, have been threatening to bring down the government if Netanyahu makes unwarranted concessions. But these threats ring hollow against Sharon’s apparent resolve that the present government is here to stay — with him as a central pillar of it.
Sharon, who accompanied Netanyahu to Jordan this week, told reporters that Israel would be “sufficiently resolute” in the Wye talks and would insist that the Palestinians fulfill their previously-signed security commitments.
But Sharon also cautioned that while peace with the Palestinians is possible, “it’s not a short procedure. It will take time.”
In what appears as another attempt to defuse the right, Netanyahu last week designated the West Bank settlement of Ariel as a city.
At an Oct. 9 ceremony in Ariel, Netanyahu sought to soothe the settler community with a vow to continue expanding existing Jewish settlements.
“We are building and will continue to build,” he said, adding that the city of Ariel would “be part of Israel in any final-status agreement in the future.”
In the days before Wye, Netanyahu seemed confident that he had taken the steps needed to shore himself up against any possible threats from the political right.
Adding to the prime minister’s confidence is the clear signal emanating from the Labor leadership that, if an agreement is signed at Wye, Labor will make up for any defections in the coalition ranks when the agreement comes up for Knesset approval.
The Labor “safety net” is not open-ended; it will remain in effect only as long as the implementation period lasts.
Looking beyond that, Netanyahu’s domestic political strategy is clear.
It is based on the unanimous findings of opinion polls over a lengthy period that a solid majority of Israelis want the redeployment agreement to be concluded and the peace process to continue.
If the right carries out its threat, once Labor’s support is withdrawn, and brings down his government, Netanyahu will run in early elections as a center- of-the-road leader with a proven record of tough negotiation but eventual agreement with the Arab side.
And if the right backs down, Netanyahu will be greatly strengthened both by the agreement itself and by his having faced down his domestic political critics.
Seasoned observers warn, though, that this no-lose scenario could be marred by the restless personality of the new foreign minister.
Is Sharon’s desire solely to attain a measure of “rehabilitation” on the national and international stage, 15 years after he was forced to resign the Defense Ministry in the wake of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut during the 1982 war in Lebanon?
If so, Netanyahu can look forward to a fruitful working relationship with a man of proven ability and ingenuity.
Or does Sharon still harbor the ambition to become prime minister?
The number of pejoratives and contemptuous insults he has flung at Netanyahu during the past two years could fill pages.
Are they all part of the past now? Or will Netanyahu find himself riding a tiger?