Benjamin Netanyahu is no longer on the hot seat in Mideast peace talks. He may not be in the driver’s seat, but it is clear after his five-day visit to the U.S. that the Israeli prime minister’s stock has gone up in Washington of late.
Israeli officials assert that the Clinton administration is more sympathetic to Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians must live up to their prior commitments on security before Israel agrees to a second redeployment in the West Bank.
After a meeting Monday in the Oval Office among Netanyahu, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and President Bill Clinton, prospects for resolving the Israeli withdrawal issue improved.
“I believe that we all agreed that we have made progress on the path to peace,” Clinton said in a press conference after the White House meeting. “There has been a significant narrowing of the gaps between the two parties on a wide range of issues.” Clinton announced plans for a summit this month in Washington aimed at finalizing the agreement.
As recently as a few months ago, Netanyahu was portrayed by the Clinton White House as intransigent and an obstacle to peace for resisting America’s proposal for a 13 percent troop withdrawal. This week, after a flurry of top-level Washington-Israel-Palestinian meetings, setting the stage for the three-way talks at the White House, there appears to be a grudging respect for Netanyahu in the administration, which sought to soften Arafat’s rhetoric on declaring statehood next May.
American officials were concerned that Arafat would use his United Nations address Monday afternoon to declare his intent to announce a Palestinian state on May 4, citing the long-stalled Oslo talks as his rationale. The five-year Oslo Accords extend to that date, but Israel has noted that none of the deadlines along the way have been met.
Netanyahu told a group of Jewish newspaper editors and reporters here Sunday that a unilateral move by Arafat would mark the end of the peace process. Calling the possibility “a mortal blow against the security of Israel,” the Israeli leader said he would respond with his own unilateral move, presumably to annex the West Bank territory his country holds.
Arafat in the UN address called for an independent Palestinian state but did not mention a specific timetable. Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Dore Gold, expressed “satisfaction” with Arafat’s muted rhetoric, but American Jewish leaders were dismayed at Arafat’s use of “old canards and the rhetoric of the past” in blaming Israel for the 18-month stalemate in the peace talks.
“This morning,” Arafat said at the UN, “President Clinton took an important step to save the peace process by convening a meeting at the White House. … to promote the peace process. … We have not lost hope in the peace process and we will continue to honor our obligations in accordance with existing agreements. At the same time, we will not give up with the need for Israeli compliance with the agreements.
Arafat appealed to the delegates to “ continue your support for us; help us to achieve the national goal of our people in the establishment of our state.”
Gold said the tenor of Arafat’s remarks to the world body — and his decision to strike a call for Palestinian statehood on May 4 from the speech he delivered Sunday to a Mideast think tank here — signaled his apparent decision to take a more moderate approach. Gold said that in discussions with European diplomats, he had learned that Arafat was abandoning a school of thought among some Palestinian leaders who believed that an impasse in the peace process better served Palestinian interests.
Netanyahu this week emphasized that while Israel agreed to the 13 percent withdrawal — 3 percent of the land will be a nature reserve — it will finalize the agreement only when Arafat complies with previous promises to “fight terrorism, in word and deed.” He told the Jewish editors that includes “nine or 10 issues,” and mentioned specifically arresting suspected terrorists, confiscating police weapons and halting anti-Israel propaganda in the media.
“If they want a deal, they’ll get it,” Netanyahu said of the Palestinians. “But they know they can’t get something for nothing.”Gold also put the onus on the Palestinians. “Israel has done its side of the bargain and is now waiting to get the Palestinians to agree to a detailed work plan for fighting terrorism,” he said.
For their part, the Palestinians are demanding the opening of the new Gaza airport, a seaport and an industrial park, as well as safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. They also are calling for a halt to any further settlement building in the West Bank, though Israel says that is not stipulated in the Oslo Accords.
In addition, Arafat told the UN, the Palestinians also want reciprocity “against all forms of violence and terrorism.”
A meeting between Netanyahu and Albright on Sunday evening to nail down a map of the troop withdrawal occurred around a conference table on the 44th floor of the Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan. Later in the day, the prime minister addressed the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He then delivered a public address at Hunter College co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and UJA-Federation, and he toured Central Synagogue. Last month the synagogue sustained heavy damage in a fire apparently started by a workman’s torch.
Late Sunday night, Netanyahu and Arafat, both of whom were in New York to address the UN, met for the first time in 11 months. They then flew to Washington Monday morning to meet with Clinton. After the meeting, Clinton announced that U.S. mediator Dennis Ross and Albright would return to the Middle East to “see how much preparatory work can be done to narrow the differences further.”
In his meetings with Jewish groups and the media, Netanyahu emphasized that reciprocity would be key to future developments leading toward a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Thus, the troop withdrawal would occur in three stages over three months to ensure that the Palestinians were honoring their commitments, he said. Talks toward reaching a final settlement on all outstanding issues — including the future of Jerusalem, permanent borders and Palestinian refugees — are to begin the moment the interim agreement is signed, Netanyahu told reporters.
Asked what each side needs, Netanyahu said Israel must have protection for its citizens and the Palestinians “need to run their own lives.” In considering territory, one must take into account “space, history and security. The history there is well known to all of you —- this is the Jewish homeland.”
Regarding security cooperation by Palestinian authorities with Israeli troops, Netanyahu said it was “far from satisfactory.” Although there was good cooperation in the Gaza Strip, he said there was little in “areas that are most porous, particularly in Judea.” He said Palestinians only arrest a terrorist after Israeli security officials have done the tracking and tell the Palestinians precisely where the suspect is.Netanyahu also made the following points:
# He said he found it “horrible” to watch “4- and 5-year-old girls saying [on a Palestinian children’s television program] that they will blow themselves up” as suicide bombers against Israel. “Oslo says very clearly that they have to stop that,” said Netanyahu.
# Although the Israeli economy is booming, Israel still needs the financial support of Jews worldwide to resettle Jews coming from the former Soviet Union. They now number about 50,000 a year, but that number could swell to 1 million, depending upon economic conditions there. UJA-Federation of New York is a prime sponsor of the resettlement effort.
# The Palestinian National Council wrote the PLO covenant calling for the destruction of the State of Israel and “only that body can cancel it. If this body is extinct, as some suggest, let the Palestinians say so. As long as they don’t, that body has to abrogate that charter.”