Posted on March 17, 1997 in Washington Watch

Recent actions by the Netanyahu government and the U.S. veto of the United Nations Security Council resolution on Israel’s planned settlement at Jabal Abul Ghnaim have dramatically shaken up the Middle East peace equation.

Netanyahu’s penchant for taking one step forward (only when he’s forced to do so) and then two steps back has pushed the Israeli-Palestinian track to the brink.

Whether Netanyahu is a captive of his far right coalition or its leader is now an academic question. The decision to build a new settlement and new roads completing the alienation of Jerusalem and its surrounding villages from the rest of the West Bank has precipitated a crisis that may spell the end of the Oslo process.

Unilateral Israeli actions that predetermine three (Jerusalem, settlements, and borders) of the four final status issues violate the very logic of the Oslo agreement. Israelis argue that their interpretations of the accord allows such behavior. But the spirit of mutuality, trust, and reciprocity that were the underpinnings of the agreement are contradicted by unilateral impositions by force.

Netanyahu’s concepts of peace, the process needed to achieve it, and its final outcome stand in stark contrast to those shared by his peace partners.

Peace, for the Israeli Prime Minister, appears to mean Arab acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over the entire “land of Israel”. According to the tenants of revisionist Zionism as taught by Jabotinsky, a school of thought to which Netanyahu adheres, there is room for a minority people to live under Israeli sovereignty. But there is no room for Palestinian sovereignty in Eretz Israel. And peace is only possible when Arabs accept this view.

It appears that, for Netanyahu, the peace process is a means to accomplish this end. Within this process, tactical steps can be taken to pacify either the Palestinians, the surrounding Arab states, or the international community. But these steps must never relinquish final control or create “facts” which place limits in Israeli sovereignty.

In this context it is useful to consider the map of the final settlement of the West Bank and Gaza that is the working document for the Netanyahu government. Submitted by the Israeli military command and accepted by the Prime Minister, it is virtually identical to what was termed the “Drobble’s Plan” proposed by the World Zionist Organization and accepted by the Begin-led Likud government in the late 1970’s. This plan envisioned a West Bank cut into pieces by Israeli-controlled roads that connected Israeli settlements that resulted in corralling Palestinian cities and populated areas into cantons separated one from another. In this way the Drobble’s Plan sought to ensure that there would be no possibility for Palestinians to establish any territorial continuity in the West Bank. Thus, despite the fact that Palestinians would have self-rule within each canton, they would remain a captive minority under Israeli sovereignty.

It is in this context that Netanyahu’s most recent actions can best be understood.

The Likud land strategy:

Palestinians have been given control over part of Hebron and offered control over small areas of land where there are high concentrations of Palestinians in villages and small towns. At the same time, the Israeli government has moved forward in building and expanding settlements and new roads and confiscating more Palestinian-owned lands throughout the West Bank.

The refusal to accept any sign of Palestinian independence

Israeli officials in the U.S. and in Israel have been sharply critical of U.S. efforts to extend bilateral support to the Palestinian Authority. For example, the Israeli Ambassador to Washington’s recent criticism of the establishment of the joint U.S.-Palestinian Commission and Israel’s Foreign Minister’s rebuke of the U.S. decision to participate in a Palestinian Authority convened conference in Gaza.

The insistence that peace with Arab states not interfere with Eretz Israel

There was a telling comment in Netanyahu’s response to King Hussein’s letter when he said, “We cannot make the Jordanian-Israeli relationship hostage to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiating track. We cannot give every Palestinian-Israeli impasse the power to hurt our own relationship.” In other words, “we, the Israeli’s are sovereign here if you want peace with us, our actions in Eretz Israel should not affect your attitude towards us.”

Despite continued hopes by some in the U.S. and in the Israeli press corps, that the government of Israel’s behavior can be altered, Arabs have become convinced that Netanyahu is, in fact, ideologically driven, and that his tactics and his overall strategy do not fit the Oslo framework. The notion that Palestinians should accept what is given and not complain is inimical to a peace process bound on negotiated grounds in mutual respect and mutual reciprocation.


From its inception, the peace process was plagued by a number of weaknesses:

· the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians and with the absence of any real Palestinian leverage in negotiations;

· the fact that the political debate in Israel was driven by the far right—Labor, too, often took one step forward and two steps back in order to placate the far right; and

· the refusal of the U.S. to insert itself aggressively as a balancing agent either between the Israelis and the Palestinians or within the internal Israeli political debate.

Despite recent U.S. efforts to provide assistance and recognition to the Palestinian Authority, there is legitimate fury in the Arab world over the U.S. veto in the Security Council. It is not that a Security Council resolution would have altered Netanyahu’s decision on Abul Ghnaim, but the veto is viewed as an indication of the refusal of the U.S. to insist that Israel modify its aggressive and unilateral behavior.

This is not a new story. There is an accumulation of rage in the Arab world on the settlement issue. It is correct to note that U.S. language toward Israeli settlement building has changes from “illegal” to “unfortunate”, and that settlement building and the billions of dollars in U.S. assistance to Israel have continued unabated. But even when the U.S. said they were illegal back in the 1970’s, settlements were still being built and the U.S. continued to provide assistance and support.

In a real sense, Israeli disrespect for world opinion and the knowledge that its violations will go unchecked is the result of accumulated experience.

Despite these weaknesses and failures in the process and relationships of the parties within the process, it is still possible to point to some positive developments that may be emerging in this current crisis.

· Israeli behavior has not gone unnoticed internationally. The Netanyahu government’s actions have cost it significant political capital.

· There is significant resolve on the Arab front. King Hussein and President Mubarak’s recent statements will have a significant impact on the internal Israeli debate. Despite the recent tragic murders of Israeli school girls, Jordan and its King retain substantial political capital in Israel.

· Despite its veto the U.S. indicated its displeasure on a number of occasions with the Israeli settlement effort—in private the U.S. was even more insistent.

The U.S. also spoken out against the Israeli desire to close Palestinian offices in East Jerusalem (the order has been canceled) and has commented on the inadequate transfer of land to the Palestinians in the first of the phased redeployments.

At the same time the creation of a U.S.-Palestinian commission and the U.S. decision to attend the Gaza conference despite Israeli criticism is also noteworthy.

· Despite an organized effort by the U.S.-Jewish leadership to support Netanyahu, there are strong indications that the support is lukewarm and does not reflect majority Jewish American attitudes.

· Finally, the actions of Palestinian Authority President Arafat have been tactically flawless. A Washington political commentator recently noted, “For someone who doesn’t have any cards to hold, Arafat’s playing a great hand.”

Arafat knows that by saying “no” and playing a bit of brinkmanship he can test the commitment of the international community to the peace process.

All these developments are occurring while the process and the region teeter on the brink of renewed conflict.

The question that remains to be answered is, “Will Netanyahu feel the heat and back away or will the pull of ideology or his coalition be so strong that he breaks ground at Jabal Abul Ghnaim, and pushes the region into the abyss?”

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