Another Offer Arafat Can’t Refuse?

Binyamin Netanyahu has made peace, for the time being, with his own disaffected coalition by offering the Palestinians a further West Bank withdrawal that is vague, qualified and conditional. But in the atmosphere of distrust generated by the Israeli prime minister, few are convinced that he has advanced the prospects of a wider peace.

That will depend on whether Yasser Arafat calls his bluff, and whether the other principal players in this diplomatic game — the United States, Egypt and Jordan — give him the benefit of the doubt. Is Netanyahu stalling yet again, merely solving another short-term domestic crisis? Or is he ready to sacrifice more land for more peace? In striving to please all the people all the time, will he end up fooling none of the people none of the time?

Sunday’s Cabinet resolution was skillfully crafted to appease a maximum number of ministers. Even the die-hard Likud opponents of territorial concessions voted for it, though some did not conceal their assumption that Netanyahu was making Arafat an offer he couldn’t accept. The two National Religious Party ministers, Zevulun Hammer and Yitzhak Levy, the settlers’ champions, abstained. The other 16 ministers endorsed the prime minister’s formula, which was careful to close no doors.

In discussions with right-wing legislators on Monday, however, Netanyahu stated that Israel will annex the Jordan Valley and other West Bank areas if the Palestinians unilaterally declare statehood.

The Cabinet reiterated its commitment to at least one more interim withdrawal before negotiating a permanent settlement. It stated a preference for going straight into these final-status talks, but did not make it a condition for an interim withdrawal. A committee, comprising the prime minister, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, Foreign Minister David Levy and Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, will draft a plan for a permanent deal. Again, the Palestinians were not told they would have to take it or leave it.

The resolution did, however, make any evacuation conditional on the Palestinians fulfilling their commitments under last January’s Hebron agreement. These include deleting from the Palestinian National Charter the clause that calls for the destruction of Israel, ceasing hostile propaganda, waging war on terror, and handing over Palestinians accused of killing Israelis.

In contrast to earlier Netanyahu statements, the Cabinet did not set a time limit for Palestinian compliance with this demand. Nor did it specify how much land it would evacuate in the interim phase. It did, however, pledge to “take the necessary steps to continue the existence and strengthening of settlements in Judea and Samaria, steps to decrease friction between the populations in Judea and Samaria and to increase the security of the Jewish and Arab residents.”

This falls far short of the American call for a “time out” on settlement activity — though, in practice, work has been suspended on the most provocative project, Har Homa in southern Jerusalem. The Cabinet resolution can be interpreted to mean more building within existing settlements and construction of more bypass roads. But, again, it is deliberately unspecific.

Netanyahu appealed to Arafat “to respond positively to the government’s suggestion and not miss an historic opportunity to advance the peace.” The Palestinian leader did not reject it out of hand. He was reluctant to let himself be blamed for the failure of the 1993 Oslo accords. But his initial reaction was to dismiss the offer as “another attempt to evade the written agreements signed with the Palestinians.” Under those agreements, two of three “further redeployments” should already have been completed.

Israeli opposition spokesmen shared his skepticism. The Labor leader, Ehud Barak, scorned the Cabinet decision as totally irrelevant. “It has nothing to do with the peace process,” he said. “This government is like a group of people sitting in a hot-air balloon.”

The more optimistic of Israeli commentators welcomed the Netanyahu government’s re-endorsement of the principle of land for peace. Now, as one of them put it, all that remained was to bargain over the price. Netanyahu has still to prove, however, that he wants to complete the transaction.

As Hemi Shalev argued in the mass-circulation Ma’ariv: “The true and only test for Netanyahu this time is the actual execution of a reasonable withdrawal. The Israeli insistence on the fulfillment of all the Palestinian commitments, while Israel itself is violating dozens of clauses in the agreement, will be seen by the world as fraudulent…. The world is interested in only one question: How much land will be handed over to the Palestinian Authority and when?”

Another analyst, Nahum Barnea, predicted that Netanyahu would finish up with the worst of all options. “Against its will,” he wrote in the tabloid Yediot Aharonot, “the Israeli government will found the Palestinian state — not as a neighbor but as an enemy. Its size will be determined not by strategic logic but by pressure: the Americans and the Palestinians on one side and the Israeli right on the other.”

Israel’s first directly elected prime minister could still prove him wrong, but not for very much longer.

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