Posted on July 07, 1997 in Washington Watch

For months now, Israel has been gripped by the ongoing drama playing out within the year-old Netanyahu government. The quick-tongued, media savvy Prime Minister has shown in his first year in office that he could win an election but has difficulty holding together an unruly coalition.

If Israel’s new election law was designed to produce a strong executive, it has yielded the opposite. The Prime Minister won his election by a mere percentage point. Since his party did not win a majority, in order to form a government he was forced to forge a coalition with seven diverse political parties.

To do so, Netanyahu had to be shifty and quick-footed. That he was, but he was not honest. As dishonest as the new Prime Minster has been in his public pronouncements and his private dealings with Arab leaders, he has displayed the same lack of veracity in dealing with his own political allies. As a result, the quick-footed Prime Minister has repeatedly tripped over his own feet.

Broken promises, secret deals and bad-faith manipulations have cost Netanyahu dearly. Not only has he alienated several Arab and Western leaders, he has lost support from within his own government. The story in Israeli during the past few months has been one of the repeated crises that have rocked the Netanyahu government. There have been scandals and there have been defectors from his cabinet followed by harsh criticisms from the Prime Minister’s former allies. Netanyahu has survived but he has been weakened.

It is now conceivable that the Netanyahu premiership may not survive to the year 2000. Some Israelis now expect the Prime Minister to fall by mid-1998.

It is also likely that Netanyahu may not survive a future internal election within his own party. The competition to replace him, in part, explains the machinations of his ex-Finance Minister Dan Meridor (who resigned in protest), his new Finance Minister- designate Ariel Sharon (who is a master of intra-party manipulation) and his Foreign Minister David Levy (another master manipulator, who is playing for a post-Netanyahu position).

But through all of these self-imposed wounds, the Prime Minister can point to at least one area where he has succeeded. While feigning a commitment to honor Oslo, Netanyahu also committed himself to making a “clean break” with the Oslo ground rules.

The break was not so clean, but it has been real. In one year, the Prime Minister virtually dismantled the process he inherited. This is one area where he was true to his word, where he fulfilled his commitments.

The Syrian and Lebanese fronts, already stalled and wounded during Labor’s rule have received serious new blows. By rejecting progress that had been made during his predecessor’s tenure, and ratcheting up the rhetorical ante, Netanyahu has sought to make negotiations with Syria impossible.

On the Palestinian front, Netanyahu also sought to and succeeded in writing his own rules, thereby ending progress on that track as well.

Netanyahu took issues that had been negotiated but not implemented, and declared it necessary to renegotiate their terms. As a result, Oslo, which had already been deformed, was left dismembered. Instead of seeing incremental steps toward realization of their rights, Palestinians were locked into isolated “cantons” with their economy in shambles.

At the beginning of his tenure, the U.S. urged Arabs to “wait and see” how the new Prime Minister would function. It was argued that Netanyahu may only be a captive of his right wing coalition and not its leader, and that as he gained experience and confidence, he might show himself to be a pragmatist who could lead his right-wing coalition to make the needed compromises for peace.

The first test was to be his performance in implementing the agreement to redeploy from Hebron.

In hindsight, Netanyahu’s behavior in this process has been telling, both of his intentions and the fruits of his negotiating and governing style. The Hebron agreement locked in place an impossibly flawed situation. With 20 percent of the city, including its central market, under Israeli control to protect 400 extremist, provocative settlers—Hebron was designed to be a time bomb.

At the same time, in order to sell this agreement to his far-right partners, Netanyahu concluded two side agreements that further compounded the already difficult situation. To Hebron’s settlers he promised the right to build new settlements within the city (thus emboldening them) and to his far-right and religious coalition members he committed to build new settlements completing the physical encirclement of Jerusalem.

Additionally, the Prime Minister has either stalled or dissembled in honoring commitments made to the Palestinians as part of the Hebron package. Thus far, there has been no movement on the port and airport for Gaza, the long-promised safe passage road between Gaza and the West Bank, no movement on economic development for the crippled Palestinian economy and an insulting offer to redeploy Israeli troops from only two percent of the West Bank.

Thus, despite the inability of the Prime Minister to hold together his own coalition, from an Arab perspective, the Prime Minister’s first year record is clear. He did what he set out to do. Israelis may joke that they can’t believe anything their Prime Minister tells them, but to the Arabs Netanyahu’s actions have been quite direct.

In a recent interview evaluating his first year in office, Netanyahu said as much. He claimed that he had been victorious in accomplishing his objectives of stopping Israel from returning to its ‘67 borders and dividing Jerusalem.

Netanyahu said, “I know people are anxious and afraid. They ask ‘where is all this leading?’. But you must understand if we don’t want to return to shrunken borders … and if we don’t want to divide Jerusalem, then we must show the ability to stand firm and emerge strengthened from this period.”

The Israeli Prime Minister went on to observe that “the price is that the Palestinians don’t accept this and are trying to bring back the old rules. I know they are having a difficult time getting used to us.”

What should be of even greater concern to the Arab world is that despite the Prime Minister’s rejection of the formula for peace and his obvious domestic political problem, there is no relief in sight.

Should Netanyahu be removed by the Knesset, those in Likud who seek to replace him are clearly no better. Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Ariel Sharon, though different in many respects, are also hardline rightists no more willing to honor the mutual recognition and land for peace formulae of Oslo. And with Netanyahu having recruited more religious rightists to Likud, that party’s politics will be hardened in the future.

Even more disturbing is the effect that Netanyahu has had on shifting the entire policy debate in Israel to the right. While seeking to lower Arab expectations of what peace will yield, Netanyahu has sought to raise Israeli expectations of what they can and must keep in any peace agreement.

It is instructive to note that while sharply criticizing Netanyahu’s governing style and his failure to move toward peace, Labor’s new leader, Ehud Barak, has committed himself to a peace proposal that appears to differ little from the “map” put forward by Netanyahu.

Both leaders insist that:

· there be no return to the ‘67 borders;
· greater Jerusalem remain united under Israeli sovereignty, and call for expanding borders to include the Maale Adumim bloc to the east;
· the majority of Israeli settlers in the West Bank will remain under Israeli sovereignty; and
· the Jordan River and its approaches will remain under Israeli control.

Despite party rivalries and coalition instability, it has become quite possible that at this point in “the era of Netanyahu”, an Israeli consensus can be found on the shape of a final peace arrangement with the Palestinians. It is also quite clear that this Israeli consensus falls far short of minimum Palestinian needs and aspirations.

It is a far cry from the promise of Oslo. This Israeli drive to impose a distorted map on a captive Palestinian population represents the type of “clean break” Netanyahu promised when he was elected one year ago. Despite his other obvious failings, the Prime Minister delivered on this promise and so far succeeded in dragging much of Israel along with him.

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