by Ziad AbuZayyad
From the outset, the newly elected Israeli government was clearly faced with a real dilemma: the choice between ideology and pragmatism. Since he won the elections and formed his new government in June 1996, Binyamin Netanyahu has been called to bridge the gap between his ideological commitment and realpolitik. He represents the national camp which has always championed the Greater-Land-of-Israel concept, denied the Palestinians' right to self-determination and opposed a Palestinian State on the west side of the Jordan River. Indeed, for many of his colleagues, Palestine is on the east side of the river, and they regard the strengthening and expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank as the best means to achieving the Greater-Land-of-Israel dream.
Realpolitik, on the other hand, demanded of Netanyahu a respect of Israel's obligations in the peace process: redeployment in Hebron, in Area C (which constitutes 70 percent of the West Bank), the implementation of the safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, the release of Palestinian prisoners and the resumption of final-status negotiations over the issues of refugees, Jerusalem, the Jewish settlements, borders and water.
Netanyahu realized that, like it or not, the process his predecessors had embarked on would inevitably lead to a Palestinian State. He therefore attempted to discontinue it and change its direction. The peace process, in his conception, should lead only to a kind of "administrative autonomy" for the Palestinians as a minority living under Israeli rule. This was the main underlying cause for lack of progress in the talks during the months preceding the signing of the Hebron Protocol.
Six months of marathon talks, of ups and downs, and the intervention and good offices of President Clinton, President Mubarak, and King Hussein finally led [in January 1997] to an accord between Israel and the PLO. At long last, the two sides signed an agreement over the implementation of redeployment in Hebron and the continuation of the peace process.
Matters of Principle
The dispute was over principle and substance. The substance, in Netanyahu's view, was to guarantee continued Israeli control over the majority of West Bank land, water, internal and external movement and transportation, and overriding security, thus preventing the creation of a Palestinian State. Hebron was used as a vehicle for the achievement of this goal. Netanyahu tried to create the impression that the issue at stake was indeed redeployment in Hebron and to minimize the importance of all other questions, especially redeployment in Area C. Freezing all other issues, he thought, would allow Israel to negotiate a final settlement with the Palestinians while it was still in control of most of the West Bank, and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was in possession of some scattered spots lacking territorial contiguity.
The Palestinian leadership took such reasoning into consideration; hence, the Palestinian delegation's unwavering insistence on a definite linkage between redeployment in Hebron and in the rest of the West Bank. To them, that was the only way to guarantee the continuation of the peace process.
The more Netanyahu tried to delay redeployment in the West Bank and to claim that Israel should retain civil control over part of Hebron, the more obvious it became that he was seeking continued Israeli political presence in the city.
However, as mentioned, the core of the problem was not Hebron but redeployment in Area C. Indeed this issue had raised much concern and discussion on the Israeli side, even before Netanyahu came into office. It later paved the way for Netanyahu to make use of extremist positions in order to change the direction of the peace process as a whole, and to force a continued Israeli presence on Palestinian land. This issue is already the subject of confrontations between Israel and the PNA.
It will be remembered that in the Oslo II agreement the West Bank was classified into three areas: Area A (five percent of the total area of the West Bank) would be under full control of the PNA. Area B (25 percent of the West Bank) would be under joint Palestinian-Israeli control, with civil affairs the responsibility of the PNA and security affairs that of Israel. Area C (70 percent of the West Bank), which includes the Jewish settlements, would be under full Israeli control, but should be transferred to the PNA in three stages, once every six months, starting September 7, 1996 and ending September 1997. By then, most of this area would have passed into Palestinian hands, except for the Jewish settlements within fences at a few yards' distance from the last house. It should be noted that the question of settlements is among the issues to be discussed in final-status negotiations slated to have started in May 1996, but delayed following the election of the Likud to government.
Netanyahu and Barak
When the Oslo agreement was presented to the late Yitzhak Rabin's government for approval, the then-newly appointed foreign minister, General (Res.) Ehud Barak, voted against it. He later told this writer that he believed that Area C should stay in Israeli hands during final-status negotiations, in order to give Israel a stronger bargaining power. "How can we conduct negotiations over refugees, borders, a Palestinian State, after we would have given back all the territories?" wondered Barak.
It would seem Netanyahu was inspired by the same idea. He tried to stop any redeployment in Area C in order to secure bargaining power in future negotiations, and, at the same time, to remain loyal to his ideological commitment to the Greater-Land-of-Israel concept. He was obviously trying to disengage himself from a process which would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian State. His main objective was to find the method by which he could be seen to uphold Israel's commitment to the peace process, but without accepting the obligations it involved: implementing a continued staged withdrawal in Area C, or resuming final-status negotiations, or allowing the PNA any possibility of acquiring the "features of a state," such as an airport, a sea port or open international outlets.
In a sense, the Hebron agreement signed by Netanyahu and Arafat was in Israel's favor. It came in the wake of severe violations by the present Likud government of the previous Israeli government's obligations in the peace process, regarding both the implementation of the letter and spirit of the agreements, and compliance to their timetable. If respected and implemented, the importance of the Hebron agreement lies in the fact that it will mark the beginning of a process whereby the Revisionist Zionist movement has to adapt to reality and move away from ideology. It will also mean that Greater Israel has become an unrealistic dream, and that the Likud government is heading towards the adoption of the principle of dividing the "Land of Israel" and handing parts of it to "foreigners."
No Mental Change
One should not be deluded into assuming that Netanyahu has become one of the Labor party "doves." Pushed by Clinton, Mubarak, Chirac and Hussein, he made a change on paper. He also understood the risks he ran with the European Union if he allowed the peace process to fail. Nonetheless, he has yet to change his thinking. He still needs to absorb and to internalize the new ideology of realism.
Though the Netanyahu government is committed to the implementation of three successive redeployments in Area C — once every six months - it still refuses to implement the latter two and has diminished the first. Hence, the unacceptable proposal to return only two percent of Area C in the first phase of redeployment. Although the agreement obliges Israel to evacuate more than 90 percent of the West Bank, the government talks about less than 50 percent, and denies territorial contiguity between the PNA areas. It insists on keeping the West Bank divided into three separate blocks, which is its way of preventing the establishment of a Palestinian State.
In addition to redeployment in Area C, another "explosive" issue testing Netanyahu's intentions lies ahead. Netanyahu has declared that he would not negotiate over Jerusalem, although the Oslo Declaration of Principles (DOP) stipulates that Jerusalem be one of the issues to be discussed in final-status negotiations. No durable and stable peace in the Middle East can be achieved when Jerusalem remains under sole Israeli control. The city should be shared on all levels, in order to fulfill the religious and national demands and aspirations of both the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Other thorny, emotional issues, such as the Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, the 1948 Palestinian refugees and borders are on the agenda. Each of these demands courage, vision and leadership. A genuine solution has to be reached regarding the future of the Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. There will be no chance for real separation and good neighborly relations between the two entities — Israel and Palestine — if the settlements continue to exist as extraterritorial units on Palestinian land. Painful surgery is necessary to give life to a healthy peace between the two sides.
The refugee problem has to be addressed and settled once and for all. Barring an actual return, a compromise should be reached in harmony with UN resolution 194, which gives the refugees the right to return or to be compensated for the loss of property and for suffering incurred as a result of their exodus in 1948.
A demarcation of borders has to be worked out, facilitating the process of reconciliation and the establishment of good neighborly relations between the two entities, which may, in the future, lead to a peaceful and mutually desired integration.
A Majority for Peace
Netanyahu need not start looking for excuses to renege on his commitment to implement the agreement he himself has signed with Arafat. Such excuses are readily available. Instead, he should demonstrate a high level of leadership and strength. He might face a tough opposition from within his own party, the Likud. Menahem Begin faced such an opposition in 1978 when he signed his peace with Egypt. He had the support of the opposition then. Netanyahu will definitely enjoy the same support.
Arafat has succeeded in putting Netanyahu on the hook. It will be incumbent on all supporters of peace in the region to help keep Netanyahu up to par and to make the necessary change in mentality which will lead him to accept that this is the only course to follow. It is not an easy job. Those who will try to abort all efforts at achieving peace are many. They are within his own government, his own block in the Knesset and his own party. But they are not the majority of the Israeli people. The majority of the Israeli people are for peace. Netanyahu can become, if he so wishes, the national leader of all Israelis who support peace and are eager to see it achieved. To do that, he has to disengage himself from fanatics and extremists and to press ahead with the peace process.
Following the Hebron agreement, the door has been opened for the great challenges that still lie ahead. Both Israelis and Palestinians are called to show a maximum of self-discipline, maturity, credibility, and loyalty to the peace process. Much however, rests on Mr. Netanyahu's shoulders. Whether he will rise to the occasion or not, the coming days will tell. There is still room for doubt.