Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Netanyahu Tactics Forcing Arafat into Making Another Dangerous Concession to Israel

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Netanyahu Tactics Forcing Arafat into Making Another Dangerous Concession to Israel

Article excerpt

Netanyahu Tactics Forcing Arafat Into Making Another Dangerous Concession to Israel

"By insisting that he can withdraw from only 9 per cent of the occupied West Bank, and not the 13 percent the Americans want, [Netanyahu] has been able to sell the flawed U.S. plan to Mr. Arafat, whose spokesmen say they accept it in principle. This amazing feat of Mr. Netanyahu has been accomplished on the back of America's sole superpower status, the Jewish state's vise-like grip on U.S. policy in the Middle East and the Likud leader's exploitation of the fact that Israelis are divided down the middle." -- Editorial in the Khaleej Times, Dubai, UAE, April 8, 1998.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat all face important decisions in coming weeks in connection with the moribund "Middle East peace process." But no matter how they choose, the Palestinians seem about to lose another important round in their battle to regain a part of their country, while the Israelis seem to be taking another step toward keeping it all.

Netanyahu must choose between accepting or rejecting an American plan for an Israeli withdrawal from 13.1 percent of the West Bank. If he accepts it, he breaks his pledge to his coalition partners to give up no land to the Palestinians. If he rejects it, he risks an open break with the Clinton administration, whose economic support is important and whose military-political support is essential to Israel.

In fact, however, there's no essential difference between the U.S. plan and the 9 percent withdrawal Netanyahu already has offered. Members of Netanyahu's coalition who would resign over the 13.1 percent probably would over the 9 percent as well. In any case, he can replace them. So why risk a break with the U.S. now?

The U.S. calls for the withdrawal to be made in stages over a 12-week period, bringing the total amount of the West Bank under Palestinian control to 40 percent of the land and more than 90 percent of the people. If it agrees, Israel will insist on accelerated final status negotiations without any further advance withdrawals. The problem with that is that it leaves most of the Palestinian towns and villages cut off from each other and from the surrounding land they need to build even a barely economically viable state.

Whatever Netanyahu chooses to do, a politically weakened Clinton seems to have made his own choices. If Netanyahu accepts the 13.1 percent withdrawal, the U.S. will praise him for his cooperation, even though it means Israel will go into "final status" negotiations having withdrawn from only 40 percent of the West Bank and 60 percent of the Gaza Strip instead of the more than 90 percent of both that the Palestinians said they must have in hand by that time.

On the other hand, if Netanyahu rejects the American "compromise" proposal, the U.S. may announce that it is "disengaging" from its "direct catalytic role," in the words of State Department spokesman James Rubin. The gesture will be meaningless, however, unless the U.S. also withdraws, or at least greatly reduces, its military and economic aid to Israel -- which is more than one-third of U.S. bilateral foreign aid worldwide. However, given his fear of the Israel Lobby's power in Congress and the Israeli government's support in the U.S. media, Clinton won't tie U.S. aid to Israel to Israeli observance of its commitments to the Oslo accords.

So for Netanyahu it's a "win-win" decision, while for a disgraced Clinton it's also a no-brainer. If he hails Netanyahu's decision, it gets the pro-Israel columnists in The New York Times and The Washington Post off his back. And if he "disengages" the U.S. from further participation in the peace process, the Lobby will leave him alone so long as U.S. aid flows undiminished to the Jewish state.

It really is only Yasser Arafat, therefore, who should be facing an agonizing decision of whether to accept the trifling additional Israeli withdrawal as justification for going into final status negotiations, or reject it and thus give both the stiff-necked Israeli government and the spineless American one excuses to denounce him and abandon Oslo entirely. …

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