Posted on December 22, 1997 in Washington Watch

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed up empty handed for his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright. Netanyahu complained that his government could come to no consensus on how much land to return to the Palestinians as part of a long-delayed redeployment. While there are competing redeployment maps being proposed by various Cabinet members, Netanyahu has noted that a group of 17 hardline members of his coalition government has threatened to bring down his 18- month-long rule if he agreed to any pull-back.

The U.S. decision to give Netanyahu one more month will be criticized as weak, but was based, policymakers say, on an assessment of political realities. The U.S. message to Israel’s Likud-led government has succeeded in producing a bitter internal debate over redeployment. Despite the threats of some, all Israelis now accept the fact that Netanyahu will inevitably be forced to agree to some withdrawal from the West Bank. It is also clear that this Israeli redeployment proposal will be small and wholly unacceptable to the Palestinians.

The fact that this expected and insignificant redeployment has caused so much internal dissention within Israel (and maybe result in the collapse of the coalition government) establishes the fact that Israel today is not ready for peace—and the Netanyahu government, despite its verbal commitments to the contrary, does not want a real peace.

The commitment to Eretz Israel still runs deep among too many Israelis. The armed settler movement, inspired in its secular and religious wings by a fanatic uncompromising zeal, already has assassinated one Prime Minister and murdered scores of Palestinians. Their pledge to resist any withdrawal and to use force, if necessary, to stop any plan to abandon existing settlements makes them a force to be reckoned with by any Israeli government.

Shimon Peres’ recent speeches to the effect that if he were still prime minister he would have moved forward to implement withdrawals must raise questions. Based on past experience, a Labor-led government would have fared no better.

In constructing settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, past Israeli governments were not only staking a claim to occupied Palestinian land, they were attempting to create irreversible facts on the ground to impede future governments from withdrawing from those lands. In addition, the fact that many of the most controversially placed settlements are populated by armed settlers with extremist ideologies only serves to compound this problem.

Israel dug a deep hole for itself and is still digging deeper. The pace of settlement building increased during the last Labor government and continues to grow during the Netanyahu government. From 1992 to 1996, the settler population in the West Bank grew by 50%! There are currently 8,000 new housing units under construction in the West Bank (not including occupied East Jerusalem), enough to increase the settler population by 20%. In addition, the government is spending millions in the form of tax breaks, subsidies and loans to entice settlers into the West Bank .

With such a determined settlement expansion program underway, how can Israel’s commitment to peace be believed?

Only by forcing Israelis to end their ideological attachment to Eretz Israel can peace move forward. It is here that the burden shifts to the United States. Giving the Prime Minister yet another month and maintaining subtle but real pressure may force the Netanyahu government to agree to withdraw from a few percentage points of land here or there. However, to move the process forward toward resolution, greater and more decisive pressure will be required. What is needed is the type of pressure that will force the Israeli government not only to take a “time out” in settlement building, but evacuate and dismantle settlements. The illusion of the settlers and anti-peace Israelis that they could sustain Eretz Israel was fed by several U.S. Administrations and Congresses.

The settlements that must be evacuated never should have been built. They were and still are illegal, but the change in U.S. policy, especially during the Reagan era, emboldened Israelis to press on with this expansion. The U.S. is now dealing with a problem for which it bears some responsibility. The only way out of the dilemma is to reverse the way we got into the dilemma in the first place. Only sustained pressure can change attitudes and force Israeli society to make choices that until now they have not had to make.

The U.S. Administration is correct to assess political realities both in Israel and on the U.S. domestic scene as it calculates its next move. But if the United States fails to acknowledge both the danger posed by Israeli expansion and Israeli extremists and the fact that they must be confronted as directly as Palestinians are asked to confront their extremists, or if the U.S. fails to calculate the political reality among Palestinians or the Arab world in general, then those calculations will fall short of what is urgently required.

The messages of Doha and Teheran are too clear to ignore, as are the warnings that the Administration is receiving from its most important Arab allies in the region.

The hole Israel is digging may not only bury the peace process, but the stability and security of the region as well.

Therefore, Netanyahu failed his December test, and Secretary Albright has given him another month to prepare a better answer. In mid-January, President Clinton will meet with both Netanyahu and Palestine National Authority President Yasser Arafat. The meetings alone will not produce needed change, it’s the pressure that must be brought to bear between now and then that will make change possible. Not only Netanyahu, but the U.S. as well, ought to use this month wisely.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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