Bibi’s About-face

It’s remarkable: Palestinian terrorists set off three bomb attacks in as many weeks, yet Binyamin Netanyahu, of all people, goes ahead with his plans to relinquish 13 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians.

There was the grenade thrown at Beersheba’s central bus station, the attempt to blow up a busload of 35 schoolchildren in Gaza, and, finally, last Friday’s bombing in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda open market, in which 21 Israelis were lightly injured.

After this last attack, Netanyahu talked tough, suspending Cabinet discussions of the Wye accord, yet made it clear that the debate would be resumed shortly. Indeed, on Thurs., the Israeli cabinet gave its approval to the accords, and the peace process — including Israel’s withdrawal from West Bank territory — would go on.

This policy is being carried out by a man who made his career as the scourge of Palestinian terror and a champion of Judea and Samaria. What has changed? Why is it that the peace process is going forward despite the current bombing spree?

One reason is that Netanyahu and the Likud aren’t there to lead demonstrations against the government in charge. One can only imagine what would be going on in the streets of Israel if Shimon Peres or any other Labor leader were trying to sell the Wye accord in the face of such attacks.

Secondly, the bombings have failed. Only one Israeli has been killed. With less luck, the death toll could have been in the scores. Had this been the case, it is difficult to see how the peace process could have proceeded.

There are other important reasons. The Israeli people — about three-quarters of them, according to a number of public opinion polls — want the Wye accord to be carried out and the Oslo peace process to continue. Netanyahu cannot defy such overwhelming popular will.

And, unlike previous bombings, the blame for these last ones is not falling so heavily on Yasser Arafat’s head. It has not been missed that Arafat placed Hamas’ spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, under house arrest in Gaza, or that the Palestinian Authority has arrested some 100 Hamasniks and numerous Islamic Jihad activists.

When Iran’s spiritual leader, Ali Khameini, calls Arafat a “traitor” to the angry chants of Iranian crowds, and Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah threatens to assassinate Arafat, this can’t help but raise his stock with Israelis. It appears the Palestinian leader really is cracking down on terrorists this time.

Arafat also made a point to profess his good intentions to the Israeli public, initiating an interview with Israel Television after the Mahane Yehuda attack; he promised to “pursue and imprison” the terrorists, noting that he called Netanyahu to “express my pain” over the bombing.

One other crucial element has changed: the Clinton administration. If Netanyahu had hoped the Monica affair would weaken Clinton and deter him from pressuring Israel on the peace process, the congressional elections extinguished that hope and stamped it into the ground.

Not only has Clinton emerged hugely empowered, but Netanyahu’s staunchest foreign ally — the Republicans — has been knocked spinning. Newt Gingrich, with whom Netanyahu conducted a mutual admiration society, has become the lamest possible duck. The net effect of the elections on the peace process is that Netanyahu, for lack of leverage, is now likely to be a much more agreeable partner.

With the Wye accord, the American role is greater than ever, placing it in the position of referee when Israel and the Palestinians disagree — as they always do — on who is to blame for holding up progress. This leaves Netanyahu with less room to maneuver — for instance, on the issue of the Palestinian Covenant.

Even before the Mahane Yehuda bombing, Netanyahu was coming under attack from many members of his Cabinet because the Wye accord did not require the Palestinians to undergo the full, drawn-out procedure for amending the covenant that Netanyahu had claimed he’d forced Arafat into accepting.

After the bombing, Netanyahu said that the Cabinet would not take up ratification of the Wye accord until Arafat promised to meet his demands on the Palestinian Covenant. However, the Clinton administration refused to back Netanyahu on this issue, saying the prime minister was demanding something Arafat had never agreed to at Wye.

With the West Bank settlers and their political patrons breathing down Netanyahu’s neck, the prime minister has been talking up his plans to build thousands of apartments for Jews in the disputed Har Homa area of Jerusalem. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright protested to Netanyahu — reportedly in the kind of tone that Albright might not have taken with the Israeli prime minister when Newt and Monica were still around.

Between the Clinton administration, Israeli public opinion, and the seemingly reformed ways of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu, even if he’d like to, cannot let one or even three botched terror attempts stop him from giving up land. If, however, Hamas or Islamic Jihad bombers do succeed in killing a number of Israelis, then the delicately fitting pieces of the Oslo puzzle will be tossed up into the air.