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Onus for Peace Now Is on the Palestinians

Middle East: Albright was right to pressure Arafat; the Israeli public will pressure Netanyahu.

September 15, 1997|YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI | Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report

JERUSALEM — The clear message conveyed by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during her Middle East trip last week is that only after Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat begins fighting terrorism should Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be pressured in earnest to freeze settlement-building. Though Albright denounced Netanyahu's policy of expanding existing settlements, she reserved her harshest judgment for Arafat. For the first time, an American leader publicly rebuked Arafat in his presence, in effect dismissing his pretend-war on terrorism as a sham and rejecting moral equivalency between Israeli construction of apartments in East Jerusalem and Palestinian suicide bombings in West Jerusalem.

Albright's approach is not just morally but pragmatically sound. The only way to break the Middle East deadlock is to convince a majority of Israelis that the Arab side can be trusted to uphold a deal. So far, the single successful instance of the territories-for-peace formula has been the 1982 Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai desert, which worked because then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat won the trust of the Israeli public. When former hard line Prime Minister Menachem Begin balked at ceding all of Sinai, the majority of Israelis backed Sadat. In the end, Begin had no choice but to surrender Sinai in its entirety.

What was true in 1982 is even more true today. The Israeli public craves peace and prosperity, not military glory and conquest. Yet Arafat has managed to convince most Israelis that he still remains closer in spirit to Saddam Hussein than to Anwar Sadat. By physically embracing leaders of the fundamentalist Hamas, as he did recently during public meetings in Gaza and the West Bank, Arafat immunized Netanyahu from serious domestic pressure.

Those who blame Netanyahu for pushing Arafat into Hamas' embrace have distorted the order of events. Arafat's encouragement of terrorism--like calling Hamas bombers "holy martyrs" and releasing murderers from prison--not only predated Netanyahu's election but was the primary cause for his victory.

When, during last year's election campaign, one Israeli bus after another blew up, the voters concluded that Arafat was either unwilling or unable to control terrorism, and that the Labor Party government of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres had bet on the wrong man. Netanyahu's election wasn't the cause of the breakdown of trust between Israelis and Palestinians but its result.

Now Arafat must live with the consequences of his own betrayal of Oslo and try to convince skeptical Israelis of his trustworthiness. If he finally declares war on Hamas, a majority of Israelis will almost certainly overcome their fears and force Netanyahu to accommodate Palestinian aspirations. There is virtually no compromise most Israelis wouldn't consider in exchange for a genuine end to the conflict. But what Israelis will not accept is a situation in which they meet Arafat's demands while being forced to accept the suicide bombings as a permanent fact of life. That is a bad deal.

Yet some Israeli left-wingers, desperate for any deal, fault the Netanyahu government for bringing the Islamic kamikazes into our neighborhoods. One bereaved mother even told the media that she doesn't blame the terrorists who killed her daughter, only the Israeli government that gave the terrorists no choice.

That response ignores the fact that the suicide bombings began under the previous Labor Party government, when the Palestinians rightfully assumed that most of their demands would be met by Israel. Then, Labor leaders tried to reassure the Israeli public that the terrorists were trying to destroy the Oslo agreement, and that the proper response was to reinvigorate the peace process and deny Hamas a victory. Now, when the suicide bombers have returned, the Oslo enthusiasts have a new explanation for terrorism: Israeli intransigence has driven the Palestinians to desperation.

Linking an Arafat war against Hamas with a simultaneous Netanyahu freeze on settlement building, as some are demanding, would reward Arafat for acquiescing to terror. That approach also ignores the fact that, unlike Arafat, Israel has already met its initial obligation under the Oslo accord. Israel recognized the PLO and brought Arafat and his troops to Gaza and the West Bank in exchange for a pledge that the new Palestinian entity would not become a base for unrestrained terrorism. Yet under Arafat's watch, Hamas has thrived in its safe haven, dispatching terrorists without fear of Arafat's police or of the Israeli army, which is forbidden to cross the new border.

For most Israelis, the onus on saving the peace process now lies with the Palestinians. But if Albright succeeds in pressuring Arafat to fulfill his commitment, she probably won't need to worry about pressuring Netanyahu to move toward the next phase of the Oslo process. The Israeli public will do that job for her.

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