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News Analysis: Squabbling over Security Delays Implementation of Wye Agreement

November 4, 1998
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The hesitant start in implementing the Wye agreement has provided painful evidence that a new age of trustful Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking has not yet dawned.

The first indication that all would not proceed smoothly came Monday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would not implement its latest agreement with the Palestinians until after it was ratified by the Cabinet and the Knesset.

The announcement came despite an explicit provision in the text of the Wye River Memorandum that it begins 10 days after it was signed Oct. 23 in Washington — in other words, on Monday.

Knee-jerk grumbling by Palestinian officials was quickly squelched by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. With unexpected mildness, Arafat told Netanyahu on Monday that a few days’ delay would be no problem.

The next hurdle came into view on Tuesday, when Netanyahu postponed a Cabinet meeting to discuss the accord. The premier maintained that a Palestinian plan to fight terrorism, delivered to the Americans on Monday, was insufficient.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai explained that Israel wants the Palestinians to arrest 30 Islamic militants. “Their names are known, also to the Palestinian Authority, and we are demanding that they be arrested,” he said.

Again, Palestinian officials complained. Netanyahu was “playing sorry political games,” said Palestinian negotiator Hassan Asfour.

Mohammed Dahlan, the Palestinian security chief in the Gaza Strip, said the United States was satisfied with the security plan — a position reportedly confirmed by increasingly impatient American officials in Washington.

The squabbling over security was a direct extension of the nine days and nights of bitter wrangling last month in Maryland that produced the Wye River Memorandum. The accord, which laid out a schedule for Israel’s transfer to the Palestinians of 13 percent of West Bank land in exchange for concrete Palestinian actions against terrorism, ended 19 months of deadlocked negotiations.

Netanyahu knows that the prospects of successful implementation stand or fall on security issues.

The message has not been lost on Arafat and his top security aides, who keep stating that under the Wye accord, Israelis’ security – including the security of settlers – “will be our security.”

They and their Israeli counterparts both acknowledge that Palestinian terror attacks claiming large-scale loss of life could easily destroy the delicate fabric of the accord.

But both sides fear that the respective opponents of the process — hard-line settlers on the Israeli side and militant Islamic fundamentalists on the Palestinian side — will redouble their efforts to strike.

Monday’s arrest of Gur Hammel, a young Israeli settler suspected of killing a 72-year-old Palestinian farmer last week, provided a disturbing reminder of what Jewish extremists are capable of doing.

But the chief concern about Israeli opponents of the Oslo process is not that they will commit acts of terror. The fear is that they will engage in provocations designed to fan the flames of hatred between settlers and Palestinians, and between Palestinians and the Israeli army.

Nothing would better suit the anti-Wye campaign of Israeli hard-liners than a large-scale outbreak of violence in the West Bank.

It would be trumpeted as a vindication of their conviction that Wye failed to provide for real security.

The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, is said to have beefed up efforts to penetrate Jewish dissident groups.

But the government is not prepared to place potential troublemakers under preventative detention, a draconian emergency regulation from the British mandatory period that allows for arrest without trial. These regulations were employed against Israelis briefly, back in the 1980s, after the discovery of a terrorist underground among the West Bank settlers.

Israel does expect, though, that the Palestinian Authority will act against its own potential firebrands with less deference for due process.

Indeed, the Palestinian Authority weighed in bloodily in Ramallah last week, when its police opened fire on anti-Wye demonstrators, killing a 16-year-old Palestinian.

Arafat went to Ramallah over the weekend to extend his condolences to the victim’s family and to indicate that there had been an excess of zeal that would not be repeated.

But a wave of arrests of militants in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, culminating in the house arrest of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, has broadcast a clear message from the Palestinian leadership to the Islamic fundamentalists.

That message is also intended for Washington and Jerusalem, as part of the ongoing effort by both Arafat and President Clinton to help Netanyahu get the Wye accord approved.

The premier has no problem with public opinion: The polls show a consistent 70 percent level of support for the accord and the continuation of the Oslo process.

But Netanyahu would like to have the accord approved while keeping his coalition — including its hard-line components — intact.

Arafat’s help was dramatically delivered in the Knesset on Monday, when the governing coalition narrowly escaped an embarrassing — and possibly fatal – – defeat in a Knesset budget debate because of the help of the Arab Democratic Party’s four Knesset members.

By abstaining from what was seen as a confidence vote in the government, Israeli Arab legislators enabled the bill to pass by a razor-thin majority of one.

Observers said the four Arab legislators had stayed away from the vote on Arafat’s direct urging.

Clinton’s high-profile help came in a rare interview Sunday with Israel Television in which he extolled the advantages of the new accord and carefully played down his own reported arguments with Netanyahu during last month’s Wye summit.

Support also came in the form of a hastily arranged signing ceremony in Jerusalem for a new U.S.-Israeli defense memorandum that pledges high-level cooperation in the face of strategic threats facing Israel from Iran’s and Iraq’s missile-development programs.

Some Israeli analysts maintain that the memorandum largely repeats language that has appeared in similar U.S.-Israel documents for many years.

But clearly there was a gesture here on Clinton’s part to help Netanyahu get the Wye accord through his Cabinet with as respectable a majority as possible.

Washington followed up with four letters of guarantees to Israel.

In one of the letters, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Edward Walker, reiterated U.S. opposition to a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood.

In a delicate balancing act, the U.S. administration also dispatched letters to the Palestinians.

There is said to be little love lost between Clinton and Netanyahu — and the Wye negotiations hardly helped the relationship. But the summit ended successfully in an important agreement that, if implemented, will push forward regional peacemaking and work to Clinton’s credit as a world leader.

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