Israel, Palestinians Coordinate Withdrawal

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conceived the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank as a unilateral step, but it’s increasingly being coordinated by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.

The two sides are working on joint military plans to stop Palestinian terrorists from firing on Israeli soldiers and civilians during the pullback, slated to begin in mid-August. They also are putting together a string of ambitious economic projects to provide incentives for the Palestinians to keep the peace long after the withdrawal is complete.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s lightning-quick visit to Ramallah and Jerusalem over the weekend was part of a concerted American effort to encourage coordination, and Sharon’s meeting Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also focused, at least in part, on the coordination effort.

In the two-and-a-half hour meeting, Sharon and Abbas discussed a number of key coordination issues, including deployment of P.A. police during the evacuation, arrangements for control of the “Philadelphia route” on the border between Gaza and Egypt, administration of border-crossing points between Gaza and Israel and demolition of evacuated settler homes.

Sharon also agreed to transfer the West Bank cities of Kalkilya and Bethlehem to P.A. control within the next two weeks.

But Sharon’s main message to Abbas was that Israeli-Palestinian military and civilian coordination will have little credibility unless the Palestinian Authority starts making good on its pledges to crack down on terrorism.

Israel claims there has been an increase in attacks by groups like Islamic Jihad over the past few days, and that the Palestinian Authority is doing very little to stop it.

On Monday night, Israeli forces arrested more than 50 Islamic Jihad activists after the group claimed responsibility for killing two Israelis in recent days. The message was clear: If the Palestinian Authority doesn’t take action, Israel will.

In her visit to the area, Rice met separately with Palestinian and Israeli leaders and emphasized to both sides the importance the United States attaches to coordinating the withdrawal. She left no doubt that the Americans see a coordinated, relatively peaceful pullback as the key to creating a favorable climate for renewed peace talks.

Coordination is “absolutely critical,” Rice said.

The military coordination talks are going ahead on three levels: ministerial, top brass and officers in the field.

To strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s prestige and policing capacity, Israeli negotiators, headed by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinski, the army’s deputy chief of staff, are proposing:


• Handing over more West Bank cities, such as Jenin and Ramallah, to P.A. control before the withdrawal from Gaza. The Israeli side, though, insists that the Palestinian Authority first fulfill promises to disarm terrorists on Israel’s wanted list.


• Transferring P.A. police from the West Bank to Gaza to beef up their presence in key areas.


• Setting up joint Israeli-Palestinian operations rooms to coordinate movement of forces on the ground before, during and after the withdrawal.

The Israeli side has provided maps of the settlements and asked the Palestinians to come back with a detailed security plan that would dovetail with Israel’s overall blueprint for protecting the withdrawal.

But some Israeli leaders are skeptical. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues that because Israel is not demanding anything from the Palestinians in return for the withdrawal, members of terrorist groups have no motivation to keep the peace.

On the contrary, he says, apart from any agreement Israel reaches with the Palestinian Authority, terrorists almost certainly will fire on the departing troops because they want to create the impression that Israel is being forced to leave.

The civilian coordination talks aim to provide incentives for a more enduring commitment to peace. At least five major projects are under consideration:


• A rail link between the Gaza Strip and West Bank.


• Completing construction of a seaport in Gaza.


• Reopening the Gaza airport.


• Streamlining border crossing points between Gaza and Israel.


• A massive housing project for Palestinian refugee resettlement.

In early June talks with the Palestinians, Israeli Cabinet minister Haim Ramon proposed a rail line from Erez on the Gaza border to Tarkumiya, near the West Bank city of Hebron.

“The idea is to show the Palestinians that the planned withdrawal is not a case of ‘Gaza first and last,’ as many of them fear, but rather that it is a first step leading to a full-fledged, unified Palestinian state incorporating both Gaza and the West Bank,” Ramon said.

Even more important for the “economics of peace” are the border crossing points between Gaza and Israel. Israeli officials admit that the way the crossing points operate at present could stifle Palestinian economic development by holding up the transport of goods to ports in Israel for export.

To solve the problem, the Defense Ministry has drawn up plans for rapid, high-tech security checks, and the World Bank has agreed in principle to help meet the cost of building a pilot, state-of-the art crossing point.

Another key issue on the civilian agenda is the fate of evacuated settler homes. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed to demolish the houses after the Palestinians said they don’t want them — because what they need in densely populated Gaza are high-rise buildings, not villas.

According to the agreement, Israel will destroy the homes but the Palestinians will remove the debris and use it in the construction of the Gaza seaport.

Another Israeli proposal, that the international community help finance a major high-rise housing project in the evacuated area for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees, also is under consideration.

American economic envoy James Wolfensohn, who until recently was president of the World Bank, is reportedly trying to raise $3 billion for Gaza rehabilitation projects.

“The hope is that if they materialize, these projects will provide work for thousands of Palestinians and help stabilize the security situation,” a senior Israeli official told JTA.

Such actions amount to conflict management, Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told a hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington. What the United States needs to advance to is conflict prevention, he said, by producing a breakthrough between the sides that would help placate Israeli fears of renewed violence and Palestinian fears that Sharon wants to squeeze them out of a state.

Currently, “the U.S. strategy is to help Mahmoud Abbas to survive — not succeed, but survive,” Klein said. “In my view, conflict management is not enough because we face the renewal of the intifada.”

With the evacuation less than two months away, finalizing these ambitious coordination plans will be a race against both the clock and Palestinian militiamen. Indeed, the degree of coordination could decide the immediate future of Israeli-Palestinian relations: whether or not the ongoing violence finally gives way to economic cooperation and the beginning of a credible peace process.

JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.


Israelis Still Divided on Lebanon Move

Five years after Israel completed its withdrawal from Lebanon, the jury is still out on whether then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the right strategic choice in pulling back troops without an agreement with Lebanon and Syria.

Despite the pullback, border tensions still flare up from time to time. On Monday, the day of the anniversary, Israeli troops were on red alert in anticipation of a dramatic cross-border attack by the terrorist group Hezbollah.

On the other hand, the Israel-Lebanon border has been largely quiet for most of the past five years, and pro-withdrawal analysts argue that a new strategic balance that serves Israel’s long-term interests has been created.

The impact of the withdrawal, however, goes well beyond the Lebanese arena, and its full historic significance probably will be gauged only in light of developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Will Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas adopt Hezbollah’s tactics of cross-border shelling, or will the deterrent model created by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the north be applicable on other fronts, too?

Analysts who emphasize the positive side of the balance sheet argue that the pullback enabled Israel to create a new strategic balance based on deterrence rather than occupation. By withdrawing to the international border, they say, Israel regained the moral high ground and created a situation in which Hezbollah finds it difficult to justify further attacks.

Conversely, whenever such attacks occur, Israel can make a strong case for hitting back at targets in Lebanon and Syria, holding their governments responsible for not restraining the militiamen they control. This new strategic balance, they say, has ensured that the border has been mostly quiet since the withdrawal.

The pro-withdrawal analysts also argue that the Israeli precedent led to pressure on Syria to pull its forces out of Lebanon. Syria’s recent withdrawal has increased international pressure on Hezbollah to disarm and stop providing Damascus with a proxy military presence, they argue.

In sum, these analysts say, the withdrawal sparked a dynamic that has created more favorable conditions for eventual peacemaking with Syria and Lebanon. Moreover, the situation suggests that a security doctrine based on deterrence might be similarly applicable in Gaza and the West Bank, after Israel regains the moral high ground by withdrawing from those territories as well.

In a fifth-anniversary interview published in the Ma’ariv newspaper, Barak claimed vindication, arguing that the withdrawal had enabled the IDF to shorten its lines without having to make security sacrifices.

“I said at the height of the controversy that not only would our withdrawal create an invisible protective wall by delegitimizing shooting at us, it would also turn Hezbollah into a more political organization, and that over time the Syrians would have to give in and leave Lebanon,” Barak said. “All these things happened, beyond our most optimistic expectations.”

One of the strongest arguments pro-withdrawal analysts make is the dramatic reduction in the death toll along the northern border. In the five years since withdrawal, 20 Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed in hostilities in the north; in the preceding 18 years, the IDF lost an average of 25 soldiers in Lebanon each year.

Most Israelis seem to accept the pro-withdrawal arguments. An opinion poll in Ma’ariv showed that 55 percent believe the withdrawal improved Israel’s situation, 12 percent thought it made things worse and 29 percent said it had made no difference.

But critics of the withdrawal have their points as well. Scenes of Israeli soldiers retreating from Lebanon in disarray were greeted as a major victory by the Arab world and may even have sparked the Palestinian intifada that erupted four months later.

Alex Fishman, military analyst for Yediot Achronot, argues that even if it didn’t cause the intifada, the Lebanon withdrawal certainly served as an inspiration for Palestinians and led them to believe that they, too, might be able to drive Israel out by force — an impression seemingly strengthened as the Palestinians conclude that violence is forcing Israel to flee the Gaza Strip as well.

The antiwithdrawal analysts turn the strategic-balance argument on its head. Fishman says it is Hezbollah that has been able to create a balance of fear. Having moved more than 1,000 rockets into southern Lebanon and trained them on Israeli targets, Hezbollah could threaten or bombard Israeli civilians whenever Israel makes a move of which it disapproves, or whenever it thinks an attack might be politically advantageous.

Recent border tensions offer a good example. Senior Israeli officers, including Northern Command Chief Maj.-Gen. Benny Ganz, are convinced that attacks in the past two weeks are related to upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, they say, hopes cross-border exchanges with Israel will win big points with the Lebanese electorate. Months of quiet were broken when Hezbollah fired rockets and mortars in a number of incidents just weeks before polling day.

By attacking Israel, the officers say, Hezbollah hopes to present itself as the only force in Lebanon capable of standing up to Israel and resisting supposed “Israeli aggression.”

The officers argue that the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon has not weakened Syria’s links to Hezbollah. On the contrary, the withdrawal has left the Syrians more dependent than ever on their proxy for a foothold in Lebanese affairs, and for a lever to keep Israel and the international community aware of Syria’s interests.

Therefore, the officers say, Syria is continuing to arm Hezbollah, and supports its candidates in the parliamentary elections.

Fishman argues that one of the worst developments for Israel would be if Hezbollah both retains its militia and becomes an even stronger political force after these elections. That could serve as a model for Hamas, which has struck a balance of fear by firing rockets or mortars at Israeli communities in or near the Gaza Strip whenever Israel does something of which Hamas disapproves – or even, as lately, to score points in internal rivalries with the Palestinians’ dominant Fatah movement.

“We must not allow Hamas to create a similar balance of fear on the Gaza border and in the West Bank,” Fishman writes. “They are already trying to dictate this formula, and we, foolishly, are allowing it, as if there were no lesson from Lebanon.”

The next few months could help decide the Lebanon argument. What happens with Hamas in the wake of Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank this summer almost certainly will influence the way Israelis understand the withdrawal from Lebanon in retrospect.

Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.


Claim to Gaza

In the debate over a possible Israeli withdrawal from Gaza — 80 percent of which was already surrendered by Israel in 1994 according to the Gaza-Jericho First policy — little has been said about Gaza’s Jewish roots. Media reports typically depict Gaza as an Arab territory to which Israel has no claim. But the truth is far different.

Gaza has been a part of the Land of Israel since biblical times. The borders of Israel, as defined in God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:18-21, stretch from the Euphrates River in the east to the “River of Egypt” in the west, which refers to either the Nile or the Wadi el-Arish, both of which are west of Gaza — meaning that the borders of the Land of Israel clearly include all of Gaza. In Joshua 15:47, God specifies the areas that are the inheritance of the tribe of Judah — including “Gaza [Azza, in Hebrew] with its towns and villages.” In Judges 1:18, “Gaza with its border” is listed as part of the territory of Judah. In Kings I, 5:4, Gaza is mentioned by name as one of the areas ruled by King Solomon. The area came under foreign occupation during some periods, but the Jewish King Yochanan, brother of Judah the Maccabee, recaptured Gaza in 145 C.E. and sent Jews to rebuild the community there.

The Jews of Gaza were expelled by the Romans in 61 B.C.E., but they returned, and the Roman Emperor Constantinus the Great tried, but failed, to convert them to Christianity in the fourth century C.E. The remains of ancient synagogues have been found in Gaza, including a remarkable mosaic floor adjacent to the Gaza pier, which dates back to approximately 508 C.E.

Throughout the centuries, there was a large Jewish presence in Gaza — in fact, it was the largest Jewish community in the country at the time of the Muslim invasion (seventh century C.E.). Medieval Christian visitors to the region mentioned the presence of the Jewish community in Gaza. Giorgio Gucci of Florence, in 1384, praised the wine produced by the Jews of Gaza — Bertandon de la Brooquiere (1432), Felix Fabri (1483), Martin Baumgarten (1507) and George Sandys (1611).

The Jews of Gaza were also mentioned in the writings of Jewish travelers, such as Benjamin of Tudela, Ovadia of Bartenura (1488), and Meshullam of Voltera (1481), who wrote of their real estate holdings, wine industry and hilltop synagogue. The Egyptians, under Ibrahim Pasha, destroyed that synagogue in 1831; interestingly, the Arab neighborhood built on its ruins is called Khart Al Yahood — “the Jewish neighborhood.”

The medieval Jewish communities of Gaza included many famous rabbinical authorities, among them the kabbalist Rabbi Avraham Azoulai, author of the famous book Hessed L’Avraham, and Rabbi Yisrael Najara, author of the 16th century hymn, “Kah Ribbon Olam,” which to this day is sung at Sabbath tables throughout the Jewish world. Rabbi Najara is buried in Gaza.

The fact that the most infamous false messiah in Jewish history, Shabtai Zvi, launched his movement in Gaza in the 1660s indicates that there was a sizable Jewish community there at the time.

Writing about the question of whether or not living in Gaza fulfills the biblical requirement [mitzvah] to live in the Land of Israel, the famous 18th century sage Rabbi Yaakov Emden, in his book, “Mor Uketziya,” wrote: “Gaza and its environs are absolutely considered part of the Land of Israel, without a doubt. There is no doubt that it is a mitzvah to live there, as in any part of the Land of Israel.”

When the Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, some of them moved to Gaza, and after the Ottoman occupation of Gaza in 1517, there is evidence of continuing Jewish residence there. The Jews of Gaza were forced to leave the area when Napoleon’s army marched through in 1799, but they later returned.

There were Jewish neighborhoods in Gaza in the late 1800s, a Jewish school was established in 1910, and a Jewish bank was created in 1914. Beginning in 1906, the chief rabbi of the Gaza Jewish community was the famous Nissim Ohana, who later served as chief rabbi of Cairo and then Haifa, Israel. Deported by the Turks after World War I erupted, the Jews returned in 1919, began operating the area’s windmill and hotel, and established a Jewish day school called Shimshon, named after the biblical hero Samson who died in Gaza.

When Palestinian Arabs threatened to slaughter the Jews of Gaza during the 1929 pogroms, the British ruling authorities forced the Jews to leave. But in 1946, the Jews returned, establishing the town of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip, which lasted until 1948, when Egypt occupied the area. Kfar Darom was established on the site where a Jewish town of the same name had existed in the third and fourth centuries C.E. — indeed, the Talmud, in Tractate Sota, refers to a famous rabbinical sage as Eliezer, the son of Yitzhak of Kfar Darom.

During the Egyptian occupation of Gaza in 1949-1967, Egypt refused to let Jews live in the area. Only Arabs were permitted. Interestingly, the international community said nothing about this Egyptian form of apartheid. Finally, after the 1967 war, when Israel took over the territory, Jews were able to return to Gaza and rebuild communities there.

From the biblical era through the Middle Ages and into modern times, Gaza has always been an integral part of the Jewish homeland. Even when they were persecuted or deported, the Jews fought tenaciously to return and rebuild their homes in Gaza. Today’s Jewish neighborhoods in Gaza have deep roots indeed.

Morton A. Klein is national president of the Zionist Organization of America.

Europe Pushes Palestinian Interests

After what it sees as President Bush’s tilt toward Israel, the European Union is indicating that it wants to play a larger role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — with an eye toward promoting Palestinian interests.

In a series of under-reported statements after Bush’s perceived watershed meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on April 14, senior European officials have been hinting at greater European involvement on the ground and a new get-tough policy with Israel.

Addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg on April 21, Chris Patten, the E.U. commissioner for external relations, declared bluntly that the Europeans are ready to help rehabilitate the Gaza Strip after Israel’s promised withdrawal next year, on condition that the Israel Defense Forces guarantee "not to destroy again what we build."

Speaking in Tel Aviv the same day, Giancarlo Chevallard, E.U. ambassador to Israel, warned that the European Union intends to link the level of ties with Israel to the Jewish State’s "commitment to peacemaking."

Top European officials also have been meeting with their American counterparts to coordinate the precise role the union can play in the context of the Gaza withdrawal. This will be discussed further early next month at a meeting of the "Quartet" — a diplomatic grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia that produced the "road map" peace plan.

The European Union began its campaign for a more significant role in the Gaza process by sending Javier Solana, its foreign policy point man, to Washington for an April 20 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Afterward, Solana outlined three principles of E.U. thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Nothing should be done to prejudge the outcome of final-status negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the Quartet should coordinate its policy moves and the withdrawal from Gaza should be carried out in an "appropriate manner."

All three principles implied criticism of Bush. In the European view, the American president prejudged issues of borders and refugees by saying the demographic realities on the ground — that is, Israeli settlements — should be taken into account in setting final borders, and that refugees should return to a future Palestinian state rather than to Israel.

Moreover, in declaring his "new" policy, Bush acted alone, without consulting his European partners, and did nothing to coordinate the Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinians.

Powell is taking the European sense of slight seriously. The day after his meeting with Solana, he approached Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos — who served for seven years as E.U. special envoy to the Middle East — urging him to help with the Gaza plan.

The Europeans would like to play a role in coordinating the withdrawal with the Palestinians. They maintain that this is essential if the pullback is to create a new peace dynamic.

Patten made the point in his address to the European Parliament: "Our aim must be that Israelis recognize again the Palestinian Authority as their partner in the peace process. The objective should be to hand over Gaza and parts of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority — not to Hamas — and to ensure that the handover takes place in an orderly fashion, not in a way that leads to more chaos and violence."

Patten suggests that the Europeans, rather than the Americans, could help bring the Palestinians into a positive process with Israel. It’s the Europeans, he points out, who more than anyone else have funded Palestinian projects; and it was constructive European influence that helped P.A. Finance Minister Salam Fayyad achieve transparency and accountability on budget procedures, in line with economic reforms the Quartet demanded of the Palestinian Authority.

What seems to be shaping up is a complex carrot-and-stick policy in which the United States encourages Israel and puts pressure on the Palestinians, while the Europeans do the reverse. Patten made clear that Europe is prepared to continue its humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians and help rebuild their economic infrastructure. But at the same time he was highly critical of Israel.

"We are certainly prepared to continue our humanitarian assistance and to support the rebuilding of the infrastructure of those areas from which the Israel Defense Forces withdraw," he said in Strasbourg.

The Europeans are not making do with mere criticism: They intend to use their economic clout to exert political pressure on Israel. Europe is Israel’s largest trading partner, and Israel has a preferential trade agreement with E.U. countries.

It took Israel years to negotiate the agreement, and for years it has been trying to upgrade it. Now the Europeans say bluntly that they intend to create a linkage between their economic ties with Israel and the way Israel deals with the Palestinian issue.

At his Tel Aviv news conference April 21, Chevallard declared, "Up till now we kept the strengthening of bilateral relations with Israel separate from the regional diplomatic process. From this point on they will be part of one complex."

He did not envision sanctions on Israel, but said the Europeans would enhance or downgrade their ties with Israel depending on its peacemaking performance.

He added that the Europeans expected that Israel would "recognize that the E.U. has a large role to play in the Middle East" and, in the future, he suggested that Israel consult not only with the United States, as it had on the Gaza plan, but with Europe as well.

Some Israeli analysts believe the Europeans may even suggest an alternative plan to the one Bush and Sharon agreed to in the White House.

It’s more likely, however, that they will seek a role within the framework of the Israeli-American plan and will use their support for the Palestinians to make inroads in the Arab world, where the United States is struggling, partly because of its support for Israel and partly because of the situation in Iraq.

Barak’s Battles

Ehud Barak is going to have a hard time persuading the Israeli voters to endorse any deal with Syria that entails a withdrawal from most or all of the Golan Heights. The public is drifting away from the prime minister. So far.

On Monday night, more than 100,000 demonstrators gathered in Tel-Aviv’s Rabin Square for a rally sponsored by the Golan settlers under such slogans as “The people are with the Golan,” “The Golan is my home,” and — echoing American anti-draft chants during the Vietnam war — “Bill, no! We won’t go!” The platform party included two ministers in Barak’s coalition, Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party and Natan Sharansky of the Russian immigrant Yisrael B’aliya, though the canny promoters kept all political leaders away from the microphone.

No one knows how many protesters there were. But there is no doubt that it was one of the biggest demonstrations ever massed by the Israeli right. And they were not all the usual, knitted-kippah suspects.

Michal Kafra hailed it in the tabloid Ma’ariv as “a wonderfully democratic” demonstration. “It broke several rigid codes of Israeli demonstration culture,” she wrote. “Religious and secular in the same square, clapping hands for Yitzhak Rabin, who had opposed withdrawal in the past, and ‘Hatikva’ played in waltz tempo, with subtitles appearing in Russian, and without even one sign with the word ‘Traitor.'”

Among the forest of Hebrew and English placards were dozens in Russian proclaiming: “We will say no to Assad.” Officials of the two new immigrant parties claimed that their people filled 560 of the 900 buses hired to bring supporters to Tel-Aviv. Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the more right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, said the Russian voters, who brought Barak to power, would determine the result of the promised referendum.

It is no idle threat. The 600,000 Russian immigrant voters are the most volatile of Israel’s ethnic, religious and ideological constituencies. They swung back and forth in the last three elections, putting Rabin in power in 1992, Binyamin Netanyahu is 1996 and Ehud Barak in 1999.

According to Tel-Aviv University’s Peace Index, which has polled the nation month by month since the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians, more than 70 percent of the Russians oppose a Golan pullout, even for peace. Among those who voted for immigrant parties, the tally is closer to 78 percent.

“Russians,” the former Prisoner of Zion, Edouard Kuznetzov, explained in the Jerusalem Report magazine, “come from a heritage of a large empire and find the idea of giving land to anyone, let alone a sworn enemy, incomprehensible. Also, that Syria was a staunch ally of the Soviet state doesn’t help.”

Tamar Hermann, who directs the Tel-Aviv Peace Index, added that the Russians in general tended to be more hawkish towards the Arabs. They were more hostile to the very ideal of cultural integration into the “backward” Middle East. And they found Israel, even with the Golan, uncomfortably small.

“The resumption of the negotiations with Syria,” Nahum Barnea commented in the mass-circulation Yediot Aharonot the morning after the demonstration, “did not generate the same sweeping happiness that Sadat’s initiative did in 1977, nor the sense of historic justice that the Oslo accords engendered in many Israelis.”

A survey by veteran pollster Mina Tzemach in Yediot last Friday found 53 percent of Israelis against full withdrawal for a full peace, even if it also included withdrawal from South Lebanon. Only 41 percent were in favor, down from 45 percent in mid-December. Even for a partial withdrawal, support was down to 49 percent in favor, a drop of 10 percent in less than a month.

Apart from the Russians, Peace Index found Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox voters overwhelmingly opposed to any compromise with Syria. Among voters of the Sephardi Shas party, which Barak is wooing with the taxpayers’ money, 50 percent are against a Golan withdrawal. Only 20 percent are in favor, with another 20 percent saying they don’t know.

Hermann suggested that even if the Shas spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, endorsed a deal with Syria, he would not deliver a majority among the party rank and file. About 50 percent of Shas voters, she said, were “traditional” rather than ultra-Orthodox. “Their hawkish, gut feelings won’t be transformed, even if the rabbi backs Barak.”

Although Netanyahu, when he was prime minister, is reported to have offered Hafez Assad a substantial Golan pullback, 70 percent of those who voted for him last year told the Peace Index they now opposed such a deal. Even among Barak’s One Israel voters, 35 percent were against full withdrawal.

The prime minister is in a double bind. He can’t go out and campaign for a “yes” vote until he knows the terms he will be offering. Will it be a full withdrawal? To which line? What will the security arrangements be? Will Israel still be free to draw on Golan water resources? Nor can he afford to reveal his bargaining hand to the Syrians while they’re still negotiating.

But the referendum battle is far from over. Barak is already dangling the prospect of bringing the boys home from Lebanon. The army is planning to cut the draft for young men by six months (from 3 years to 2 1/2 years).

Hermann doubted whether the public would take the bait. “They are not easily bought with sweets,” she argued. “They may become suspicious of his intentions, if he overdoes it.” Barak, she said, couldn’t control what happened in Lebanon.

The Tel-Aviv University political scientist expected him to concentrate instead on the security arrangements. “Israelis,” she added, “are not interested in eating hummus in Damascus. Security is the only thing people care about these days.”

A credible security deal, Hermann concluded, would have a major impact. “If Barak convinces the public that he made a good deal on security,” she predicted, “he will win a big majority.”

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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