Israel's New Premier Drags His Foot on Peace

TOUGH TALK - WITH CONCESSIONS

When Israel's hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first took power, little was known about how he would alter the Middle East peace process. But after two months of intense speculation, the shape of Mr. Netanyahu's new policy is beginning to emerge.

He continues to rail against the peace deals agreed to by previous Israeli governments. And he consistently rejects the American-backed land-for-peace formula, which was enshrined at Oslo, Norway, in 1993. But new and deliberate moves appear designed to reassure Arab neighbors.

"Netanyahu wants to water down Oslo, and if it falls he won't cry," says one senior Israeli government official, who asked not to be named. "He will not be the one to topple Oslo, but he will find all kinds of excuses to delay it."

The strategy of delay will likely change Israel's priorities in talks with both the Palestinians and Syrians, he says. For example, an independent Palestinian state - as envisioned by the previous left-wing Labor government, and to be agreed to in "final status" talks - is no longer a possibility with Netanyahu's right-wing Likud.

"The whole world can jump up and down, but there is no way to achieve a Palestinian state under Likud. This is the red line," the official says. "They will drag things out a long time, and even negotiate with Syria first."

But in order to mollify the Palestinians, Netanyahu is first moving toward easing the six-month closure of the West Bank and Gaza, so that more Palestinians can return to jobs in Israel.

Easing the closure also tallies with Likud ideology, which aims to increase Palestinian economic dependence on Israel, thereby undermining moves toward an independent Palestinian state.

In that vein, talks with Syria may serve a dual purpose by allowing Netanyahu to "postpone a decision on the West Bank for two years," the official says.

But so far, there has been little more than rhetoric. "What could damage him are concrete moves and concrete ultimatums that make slowing down costly," he says. "Netanyahu must satisfy the Israeli voter, so his eye is looking inside, not outside."

Despite his own rhetoric - and shrill anti-Netanyahu comments in Arab media throughout the region - the prime minister held first-time talks with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak last week.

At that meeting Netanyahu moderated a bit - especially in contrast to his earlier visit to the US, where his uncompromising stance caused fury among Arabs.

In Cairo, the prime minister promised that Israel would abide by previous peace commitments and maintain contacts with Arabs.

Closer to home, a meeting last Tuesday between Foreign Minister David Levy and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - branded a "terrorist" by Likud in the past - also made clear that high-level contacts would continue.

But Netanyahu has yet to say he'll meet Mr. Arafat face-to-face.

Still an enigma

While Netanyahu's plan for the nation is becoming clearer, to many Israelis - even those who voted for him - he is an enigma.

"We really don't know who he is," says Hirsh Goodman, editor of The Jerusalem Report.

As Israel's first directly elected leader - and its youngest - Netanyahu has unprecedented power, and the unprecedented responsibility of ushering Israel into the new millennium. Yet he is presiding over a leadership shift in generations that has pitched old Israeli values against new.

This new generation is "taking control of the government for the first time" says Mr. Goodman. "These are not the Israelis who were in the gas chambers in Germany, but who have known victory - who know what we have, and what we have to give up." This difference, he says, means less reliance on old-style Zionist ideology, and may yield more creative and pragmatic solutions.

"They are young, were born here, bred here, won their wars and lost their friends," he says. "They have not brought the baggage from outside, but shed their blood because they believe in Israel." Netanyahu, he says, is a part of the same phenomenon that is changing Israeli society. "Watch this guy [for changes], because he doesn't govern from the ghetto or have a number tattooed upon his arm," he says.

'Stephanopoulos syndrome'

Despite the significance of this shift, however, the pitfalls for the Netanyahu government - besides alienating Israel's Arab neighbors - are many.

Amateurish handling of coalition talks invited comparisons to President Clinton's first days in office. Commentators here call the combination of youth and inexperience the "Stephanopoulos syndrome," after Mr. Clinton's young adviser, George Stephanopoulos. "They've got a long list of ideas to implement," says Goodman. "But the guy [Netanyahu] is a boy scout."

A case in point: the new Cabinet. Initial appointments were later changed, and Likud heavyweights were sidelined.

"It is very possible, under Netanyahu, that we are going to backtrack before we make progress," says political analyst Joseph Alpher, the director of the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem. "Because of its policies, this government is going through a painful learning process. A lot will depend on how quickly it can learn," he says.

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