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Will Netanyahu Take Yes for an Answer?

Israel: America hands the prime minister a West Bank gift but he cries 'imposition.' Why should the U.S. support him?

April 01, 1998|HENRY SIEGMAN | Henry Siegman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. These views are his own

The American proposal for a 13% Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is an astounding victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a major defeat for the Palestinians--something that has been lost sight of in the controversy surrounding it.

Although the Oslo accords did not specify the exact proportions of the three sequential withdrawals to which Israel committed itself, there was never any question that the broad intention was to redeploy troops from a majority of the West Bank.

As noted in Israel's Maariv newspaper, "The gap between the [Clinton] administration's plan and the original intentions of the Oslo agreements is enormous." While only a few percentage points stand between the American plan and what Netanyahu's government was ready to give in any case, light years separate the American plan from Palestinian expectations. According to the Maariv story, the areas "gained" by Israel under the American proposal represent some 30% to 40% of the West Bank.

Palestinians have been urged by the U.S. to go along with a proposal that, until recently, would have been seen as requiring a total Palestinian surrender to Israel's far right. It is a prospect that Netanyahu and his supporters could not have dreamed of two years ago. But instead of embracing the American proposal and claiming victory, Netanyahu insists on portraying it as an American "imposition" on Israel that compromises its vital security. Netanyahu has taken this position at the risk of creating a historic rupture between Israel and the U.S. and of losing the remarkable gains he has achieved for his policies.

But even more puzzling than Netanyahu's contretemps is the complete ineptness of the Labor opposition and of its leader, Ehud Barak. Instead of endorsing the American plan, recognizing that it demands far less from Israel than what the Labor Party agreed to with the three redeployments in the West Bank, Barak counsels that Israel accept only an 11% withdrawal (instead of the 9% that Netanyahu proposed), while blasting Netanyahu for having placed Israel in a position of having to yield to an American diktat. This is so convoluted and disingenuous a position as to make Netanyahu seem a statesman.

Having achieved so many of his objectives--to the point of nearly destroying the Oslo accords altogether (which in fact may be his main objective)--it is hard to imagine that, in the end, Netanyahu will not agree to a compromise with the administration's position. It has been reported that he has offered a two-digit redeployment, although less than the 13% insisted on by the U.S. It is still far from clear, however, that such a compromise would be anything other than the latest twist in Netanyahu's so far successful strategy of delaying endlessly any further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank. Netanyahu still insists on standards for Palestinian "reciprocity" that will give him ample opportunity to blame the Palestinians for his failure to implement the agreement.

But even if Netanyahu will finally act in good faith, it is difficult to assess the damage he has done to Israel's relations with the U.S. A strong alliance with the world's only superpower is a deterrent without parallel in the Middle East. Conversely, a perception by the countries of the region that this alliance has weakened seriously damages Israel's strategic security interests. Netanyahu has skillfully exploited partisan rivalries between the U.S. Congress and the White House, but the question is at what cost. As Israelis learned in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when push comes to shove, it is the president of the United States, not Congress, that can take quick and risky actions that have existential consequences for their country.

The U.S. always has responded generously to Israeli military requests because of its calculation that a strong Israel is far more likely to make the necessary accommodations for peace than a weak one. Washington policymakers are beginning to ask whether this traditional assumption is at all valid. There never has been an Israeli government that is more unyielding and more confrontational with the American president than this one.

Netanyahu's message to President Clinton has been that when it comes to Israel's security, a subject he construes so broadly as to empty it of any real content, the U.S. should butt out. It is a message Clinton may remind the prime minister of the next time Netanyahu asks for intervention on behalf of Israel.

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