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News Analysis: Ideological Gap May Be Narrowing in Israel After Peace Summit Accord

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to the Palestinians’ willingness to publicly nullify the anti-Israel clauses of their charter as one of the major successes of the land-for-security agreement signed last Friday at the White House.

But a no less significant outcome of the accord is Netanyahu’s nullification of the Likud Party’s long-held doctrine of maintaining the boundaries of Greater Israel.

It is true that Netanyahu ceded a sliver of Eretz Israel when he turned over some 80 percent of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority in early 1997. But the plan to redeploy from the West Bank town had been worked out by the previous Labor government.

It is also true that his government’s longstanding commitment to pursue the Oslo peace process ostensibly entailed a willingness to cede further tracts of the Biblical homeland.

But the Netanyahu government’s formal pledge to pursue the Oslo process has been, for the past 19 months of stalemated negotiations, largely a matter of words.

Many observers in Israel and abroad believed the premier would not compromise the Greater Israel philosophy that has underpinned the platform of the Israeli right for decades.

But now, in a moment televised around the world, Netanyahu affixed his signature to an accord that plainly spells land for peace.

And Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, a foremost leader of the right for the past quarter of a century, looked on and applauded. And the Likud Party, back home, issued a statement of congratulations and enthusiastic support for the prime minister.

The White House signing may well turn out to be cataclysmic for the future of Israel — both for its politics and its society.

After this latest agreement, the clear-cut distinction between left and right, hawk and dove, in Israeli politics has been blurred.

By the same token, the planned gathering of Palestinian representatives in the Gaza Strip in mid-December, with President Clinton present, will be equally historic for the Palestinian people. At that gathering, according to the agreement signed last Friday, the anti-Israel portions of the Palestinian Covenant will be discarded.

The agreement “plugged the holes in the Swiss cheese called Oslo,” Netanyahu told a news conference Sunday at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport after he returned from the United States.

Along with the Palestinians’ promise to publicly revoke their charter, the agreement hammered out after nine days of roller-coaster talks at the Wye Plantation in eastern Maryland includes the following provisions:

an Israeli troop redeployment from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank;

the release of some 700 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails;

opening safe passage routes for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza; and

a comprehensive security arrangement, carried out with CIA oversight, under which the Palestinian police will arrest terrorist suspects and confiscate unlicensed weapons.

The deal was nearly scuttled by a last-minute dispute over an Israeli request that the U.S. free Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. naval intelligence analyst who has been serving a life sentence since 1987 for spying for Israel.

President Clinton ultimately agreed to reconsider Israel’s request for Pollard’s release, but without making any commitments about the outcome or time frame of a decision.

The “test” of the Wye agreement, say many politicians and pundits, will be in its implementation.

Indeed, the agreement could quickly unravel in the face of less-than-firm determination on the part of either side to carry out the intricate process of implementation, which spans a crowded 12-week schedule.

That period will doubtless be replete with crises, some evolving out of ongoing negotiations surrounding the implementation itself, some engendered by the provocations of opponents of the accord on the radical fringes of both Palestinian and Israeli society.

Timely implementation will be critical, but it should not be overlooked that the moving White House signing ceremony — with Jordan’s King Hussein in attendance despite his battle with cancer — was in itself an event of indelible political significance.

Already, stress lines are beginning to form within Israeli parties on both ends of the political spectrum.

Witness, for example, the Labor Party’s reaction to the Wye agreement.

Labor leader Ehud Barak said this week his party would give the agreement its support in the Knesset — thus ensuring a sweeping majority there.

But in the next breath, Barak said his party would work toward toppling the Netanyahu government and forcing early elections.

In this one case at least, he was saying that Labor would make common cause with the ultra-rightist Moledet Party and with rightist renegades within the governing coalition to bring down Netanyahu for signing the Wye accord.

But this plan is being openly challenged by some prominent figures within Labor, among them former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

They feel that to oppose the government now, before implementation has even begun, would be construed by the public as opposition for opposition’s sake, or, worse, as opposing peace.

They add that the best interests of peace would be served by the present, Likud-led government actually withdrawing the army from a significant portion of Eretz Israel.

If implementation does not take place according to schedule, they say, there will then be time enough for Labor to take issue with Netanyahu.

The confusion in Labor is mirrored by confusion and conflict within the hard- line right.

The National Religious Party, comfortably in command of the education and transportation ministries, is plainly less than happy to leave office for the barren pastures of opposition, fearing especially that Likud and Labor — their differences now narrowed — may team up in a government of national unity.

For now, only those on the far right are saying that Netanyahu must be felled regardless of what coalition may take power in his place.

The various arguments within the leftist and rightist camps may be cut short by Netanyahu himself: Some observers believe that the prime minister, if he finds his ability to govern hamstrung by the threats of defection, may actually initiate early elections himself.

This scenario is predicated on the assessment that Netanyahu’s popularity is bound to rise with the successful conclusion of the Wye accord, especially among the middle-of-the-road voters whom Barak must win over if he is to have any chance of capturing the premiership.

Certainly, it would be hard today for Labor to tar Netanyahu with the anti- peace brush with which it has grown used to painting him these past two years.

What does this mean for election tactics — whenever an election eventually takes place? And, beyond tactics, what does it mean for the evolution of Israeli politics in the long term?

So far, the 20 years of fitful peacemaking that have elapsed since the signing of the Camp David accords in September 1978 have not seriously eroded the left- right divide that cuts through Israeli politics.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin won Labor’s support for the peace treaty with Egypt, but quickly lost it when he dug in his heels against autonomy talks with the Palestinians.

Subsequent Likud-led administrations have been reluctant to consider the prospect of Palestinian statehood, a prospect that many feel permeates the language and spirit of the Oslo accords.

Now, after Wye, that deep divide might at last be closing, as the Likud prime minister embraces the land-for-peace logic that lies at the heart of Oslo.

Netanyahu, at this moment, is a man in motion. He is in traumatic transit between the rightist leader of yesterday and the centrist leader of today.

His tomorrow is still unclear. But what seems certain is that if he does indeed oversee the implementation of the Wye agreement, Israeli politics will never be quite the same again.

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