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Laying Down the Hard Rules for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Middle East:The Post-Wye Netanyahu represents the new consensus in Israel: suspicious but ready for a deal.

November 09, 1998|YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI | Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report

There are new rules in the peace process. In the old days, under a Labor Party government desperate to prove to the Israeli public that it hadn't made a mistake in trusting Yasser Arafat, any terrorist atrocity against Israel was simply attributed to the "enemies of peace" and Arafat himself absolved of responsibility. Under the new rules of the Likud government, attacks like Friday's bombing of an outdoor market in Jerusalem are no longer accepted as unavoidable facts of life.

Now, the pressure isn't on the Israelis to discourage terrorism by empowering Arafat with more concessions but the opposite: forcing the Palestinian authorities to prove that they are finally fulfilling their most basic commitments to the peace process.

Yes, Arafat does seem to be more serious this time in controlling the fundamentalist Hamas and imposing the rule of law on the territories he controls. But that is precisely because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has conditioned any territorial withdrawal on ending Arafat's double game of condemning terrorism on CNN while allowing the Hamas terrorist network to thrive. From now on, any Arafat speech urging holy war, any program on Palestinian state television showing children praising suicide bombers, will be grounds for delaying transfer of territory. Not to kill the peace process but to finally make it real.

The Israeli government's delay in ratifying the Wye memorandum hasn't been a ploy by Netanyahu to renege on his commitment to withdraw from 13% of the West Bank. Instead, it is part of the new peace rules: Every Israeli concession will be tied to a verifiable Palestinian concession. No more excuses about Arafat's weakness, about his need to appease opponents. Israel will not withdraw until it receives concrete guarantees that the promises of the Wye memorandum are being met. When exactly does the Palestinian Authority intend to arrest terrorists now serving in the Palestinian police? And how exactly will the authority unambiguously revoke the Palestinian Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel?

The Labor governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres often seemed relieved to be getting rid of the territories. For this government, though, withdrawal is a historical tragedy. That is precisely why its acceptance of the principle of territories for peace is so significant. By agreeing to withdraw from at least part of the biblical heartland, Netanyahu has in effect ended the debate over partition that divided the Zionist movement, in one form or another, since the 1920s. The post-Wye debate among Israelis is now over how much territory to surrender. Even the anti-Wye campaign of the West Bank settlers scarcely argues against the principle of withdrawal and instead focuses on Arafat's untrustworthiness.

The Israeli public, post-ideological and weary of conflict, is overwhelmingly ready to trade land if that results in real peace. Netanyahu, who still despises the Oslo process as a self-imposed wound and suspects Arafat's ultimate intentions, knows that the Israeli public is not emotionally prepared to fight the war that would almost certainly result from the collapse of the process. Netanyahu's electoral mandate was to slow down the Oslo process, not destroy it; to deliver a better, safer deal than the Labor Party offered.

In signing the Wye Memorandum, Netanyahu proved wrong the many skeptics who suspected that his hidden agenda in insisting on Palestinian reciprocity was to smother the peace process. Nor is he seeking to use the latest terror attack as a pretext for undoing Wye. But he must prove to the Israeli public that, unlike Rabin and Peres, he can deliver an agreement that doesn't result in territories for terrorism. And the way to prove that is by ensuring the destruction of the terrorist wing of Hamas and the unequivocal repeal of the Palestinian Covenant, the two key Palestinian concessions that eluded the Labor government.

Both the Israeli left and the American government have consistently underestimated the depth of mainstream Israeli skepticism about Palestinian intentions. In a recent poll, fully 76% of Israelis said they doubted that the creation of a Palestinian state would bring peace, but only open the way to further Palestinian demands.

Post-Wye Netanyahu represents the new Israeli consensus: suspicious but ready for a deal. By insisting on an exacting reciprocity, Netanyahu is fulfilling his mandate. But any attempt to appease his right wing and use the latest terrorist attack as a pretext to launch new building projects in disputed territory will undermine his achievement in placing reciprocity at the center of the peace process. Now is the time for Israel to keep the focus on Arafat's compliance with Wye and not divert international attention back to the settlements.

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