The handsome, charismatic head of state has somehow maintained public support despite a series of incredible, seemingly fatal setbacks — from political scandals to being labeled a liar within his own party to well-publicized extra-marital affairs. He’s been counted out a dozen times in the last year alone, but he has survived and now even seems to be gaining ground. How does he manage to do it?It’s a question Benjamin Netanyahu and Bill Clinton could have asked of each other when they met at the White House this week. The two leaders have a great deal in common, including a reputation even among political enemies as “The Comeback Kid.” And now each is looking to the other for a diplomatic victory. Netanyahu wants the president to put the squeeze on the Palestinians, demanding reciprocity before Israel gives up any more West Bank territory. And Clinton wants the Israeli leader to be flexible enough to sign on to the long-stalled second redeployment, giving the administration a much-needed foreign policy boost during the swirl of impeachment talk.In the coming weeks, Clinton, Netanyahu and their partner in the current Mideast negotiations — Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat — will have to make some careful political calculations to determine whether the Oslo Accords ultimately will lead to peace, or war.Clinton and Netanyahu’s fortunes, and relationship, have changed dramatically since they last met in January.
At that time Netanyahu was in the doghouse, as far as Washington was concerned, for bringing the Oslo peace process with the Palestinians to a halt, and straining relations throughout the Mideast. Even as the two leaders sat down to chat at the White House, the scandal of the year was breaking, and media attention soon was diverted from Bibi and Yasir (who also came to town that week) to Bill and Monica, whose affair has dominated the news ever since.Netanyahu was spared a White House rebuke, leading Arab pundits to conclude that Ms. Lewinsky was some kind of Zionist operative whose goal was to rescue the Jews. Ollivye, it should only be.Since that time, though, Netanyahu has survived what he described the other day, in a briefing with Jewish journalists here, as “quite severe American pressure,” holding out on an American plan calling for Israel to give up 13 percent of West Bank territory. For awhile, Washington was so frustrated and angry over the stalled talks that it refused to send Mideast negotiating specialist Dennis Ross to the region to prod the two parties toward a second Israeli pullback. “A plague on both your houses” was the implicit message.
But Ross was back in the region over the last few weeks, and Washington officials seem to have acquired a begrudging respect for Netanyahu’s longstanding position: an insistence that there’s no deal until both sides live up to their promises.Thanks to a Ross-proposed compromise, Israel is ready to agree to give up the 13 percent, since 3 percent of the land in question will be a nature preserve under Israeli security control. But Netanyahu is demanding that the Palestinians make good on their past pledges to stop terrorism, in word and deed. That includes arresting suspected terrorists, limiting the size of the police force, stopping anti-Israel propaganda in the media, and amending the PLO charter calling for the destruction of the Jewish state.Perhaps this eminently reasonable requirement of reciprocity is being viewed more favorably in Washington now because the administration, on the ropes over the sex scandal, is desperate for a foreign policy success.
Looking ahead, Arafat, Netanyahu and Clinton have some difficult decisions to make:Arafat’s Dilemma: It’s the old “bird in the hand” situation. Should the Palestinian leader accept the 13 percent compromise he’s been pushing for or hold out until next May? If he accepts the compromise, he’ll have about 40 percent of the West Bank — not the 90 percent he wanted but a significant amount of land. What’s more, he’ll display his willingness to pursue the statesman-like Oslo route, which almost certainly will lead to statehood and U.S. support. But that will be only after protracted final-status negotiations, and Arafat isn’t getting any younger.He can achieve statehood faster, he figures, if he holds tight until next May, and then, taking a chapter from David Ben-Gurion, declares a state unilaterally. He would say that his hand was forced by Israel’s long stall, and that the five-year Oslo deadline had come and gone.
Arafat won’t gain any more land between now and then, but the new state is certain to be recognized by most countries. What about the U.S., though? And how will Israel respond?Netanyahu’s Calculation: It’s the flip side of the Palestinian predicament. Should the Israeli leader, who has never hidden his displeasure with the Oslo Accords, agree to give up 13 percent of West Bank territory now, or hold firm until next May, at which time Arafat declares a Palestinian state and Netanyahu says Oslo is null and void? Then he can take military action to undo Palestinian successes — but he would be gambling on incurring international wrath and brining on another Mideast war.Clinton’s Quandary: How hard to push the Israelis and Palestinians? The president wants a Mideast peace deal, but knows the stability of all the leaders involved — most notably his own — is suspect. If he exerts excessive pressure on Netanyahu or Arafat, fundamentalists in the region could benefit. But if Clinton holds back, he is in danger of appearing impotent (politically).The stage for the second redeployment is set now. If it doesn’t happen in the next few weeks, it may not happen at all, and the Mideast then will brace itself for a May ’99 showdown.