Netanyahu orders cooperation with Palestinians even after abortive car bombing

Progressing Toward Peace

By Eric Silver, Mideast Correspondent

Like the dog that did not bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, the most revealing Israeli declaration of the week may turn out to be the one that was not uttered.

After an abortive car bombing in downtown Jerusalem on Sunday morning, Binyamin Netanyahu did not accuse the Palestinian Authority of “giving a green light to terror,” and he did not call off the resumed negotiations planned for that evening between his defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, and Yasser Arafat’s No. 2, Mahmoud Abbas.

Instead, the prime minister announced at a Cabinet meeting the same day that he “intended” to reach an agreement with the Palestinians “as soon as possible.” To avoid any misunderstanding, the Cabinet communiqué spelled it out: “The defense minister leaves for his meeting with the Palestinians along with the prime minister’s full and complete support — in order to bring about the completion of the negotiations.”

After reiterating his commitment to the 1993 Oslo peace accords — while insisting on Palestinian reciprocity and striving to minimize the “damage” of a withdrawal — Netanyahu said: “Accomplishments have been made in these areas, and we are able to reach a good agreement to be brought before the government without any hesitations.”

If the prime minister’s statement did not receive the attention it deserved, it was probably because the jaded Israeli and foreign media (not to mention his own colleagues) no longer believe a word he says. Only a few days earlier, officially inspired reports were pouring buckets of icy water on any hopes of a redeployment of Israeli troops from another 13 percent of the occupied West Bank.

There remain grounds for skepticism. Netanyahu is still Netanyahu. His priorities are short-term. He still worries about the stability of his seven-party coalition. He is running scared — of the religious parties, of the die-hard “Greater Israel” faction, who threaten to bring him down if he cedes even 1 percent, of the “moderates” of his Shas and Third Way partners, who say the time has come to decide, and of Uncle Sam, whose patience is running out.

Yet, cumulatively, the signs are encouraging. Not only did Netanyahu not blame Arafat for the potentially devastating Jerusalem car bomb (which, incidentally, would probably have blown the roof off my house one street away from Jaffa Road), he ordered Israeli security services to cooperate with their Palestinian opposite numbers in investigating it. This was tacit acknowledgment that cooperation, which has flagged during the long months of stalemate, is essential.

On Sunday night, Mordechai and Abbas (commonly known by his nickname as Abu Mazen) met for more than three hours in a Tel Aviv hotel. With varying emphases, both reported progress and agreed to go on talking. These are the first direct negotiations since Israel began clearing the ground for the contentious Har Homa Jewish housing project between Jerusalem and Bethlehem 16 months ago.

At the same time, both Netanyahu and Arafat met separately over the weekend with Jordanian Foreign Minister Jawad Anani, and encouraged Amman to play a supporting role in the West Bank negotiations. As with the Hebron agreement at the beginning of 1997, Jordan can help Israel and the Palestinians to save face after the necessary compromise.

Its components, forged in a Washington furnace, are already being canvassed. Having resisted as a “mortal threat” the 13-percent redeployment proposed by the Americans, Netanyahu and Mordechai are now busily selling it to anyone who will listen. The focus is no longer on persuading Arafat to settle for less but on restricting Palestinian rights to build in 3 percent of it.

Arafat, who reluctantly accepted the American rescue plan, having originally demanded 40 percent of the West Bank, is ready to acquiesce. The 3 percent would be declared a nature reserve. A Palestinian state, like any other, needs open spaces for its people to enjoy, doesn’t it?

In return, Israel would temper its demand that the full Palestinian National Council, the old “parliament in exile,” must vote by a two-thirds majority to annul clauses in the 1964 Palestinian Covenant that call for the destruction of the Zionist state. Arafat doubts whether he could muster such a majority, especially in the current climate of disenchantment. Netanyahu, it is suggested, would accept an interim vote by the smaller, more malleable, PLO executive.

On the security front, Israel is reviving a draft agreement reached with the Palestinians and the Central Intelligence Agency, which Netanyahu repudiated last year. Israeli security experts are suggesting amendments that would make it acceptable to all parties.

This could also make it possible for Netanyahu to moderate his demand for the extradition of Palestinians suspected of murdering Israelis. This has never been a starter. The last Labor government dropped it when the Palestinians insisted that it would have to be reciprocal. Israel was no more willing to hand its citizens over to Palestinian justice than the Palestinians were to hand their people to Shin Bet interrogators.

The mooted compromise is for the Americans to monitor the incarceration of Palestinian killers in Palestinian jails. Israel would also expect Arafat to disarm at least some of his inflated police force and to mop up some unlicensed weapons in Palestinian attics — and to rein in anti-Israeli incitement in the controlled Palestinian media.

The negotiations between Mordechai and Abu Mazen will be as difficult as every other Israeli-Palestinian round has been. Agreement is far from certain. The legacy of mistrust is profound. But the gap is narrowing, and they are talking turkey.

“Netanyahu,” as Ma’ariv’s astute political analyst, Hemi Shalev, wrote, “understands that he can no longer depend on putting off decisions as a tool for political survival. Time, for which Netanyahu has been playing with a certain amount of virtuosity, is running out.”