Has Netanyahu Given Hard-Liners Too Much Room to Maneuver?

A majority of citizens wants the Israeli leader to keep his promise of 'peace with security'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a positive, laudable step forward by finally meeting with Yasser Arafat last week. But as he speaks to American Jewish leaders in New York this week, peace-process supporters in Israel and the US still fear he has given Israeli settlers in the West Bank enough leeway to derail the peace process.

Some of what's been reported in the US is cause for great concern: Mr. Netanyahu's decision to sanction the expansion of these settlements, Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon's plans for new highways that will tighten Israeli control of the West Bank, delays in implementing an agreed-upon redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron, and Mr. Arafat's warnings about Palestinian resistance.

The underreported news may be even worse: Mr. Sharon has instructed the Israel Lands Authority to start a massive land-purchasing project, buying land "belonging to Arab residents both inside and beyond the Green Line [demarking territory captured by Israel in 1967]," according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

BUT despite these troubling developments, I'm not yet convinced that new settlement construction will explode the peace process. I don't know if the prime minister, in his heart of hearts, wants the settlers to finish what they started under the right-wing Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir. I do know that he wants to survive politically.

If he reads poll data, he must realize that the majority of Israeli Jews - including most Likud voters - reject the extremist settlers' agenda and want him to keep his campaign promise of "Peace with Security." That promise can't be fulfilled if Sharon and his supporters have their way.

Post-election surveys show that most Israeli Jews endorse the specific goals of the process outlined in Oslo, not just the abstract principle of peace. That's a key reason why Mr. Netanyahu was willing to risk public censure from some members of his own political party and meet with Mr. Arafat, a step that has been anathema to a minority of Israelis.

In Yedioth Aharonoth on June 18, Hebrew University professor Avraham Diskin summarized his post-election survey of 1,250 eligible voters: "It is incorrect to say, as many claim, that the nation is divided on the issue of peace."

Professor Diskin noted that "a large majority in both camps prefer separation between Israeli and Palestinian populations, as outlined in the Oslo accords. Ninety-five percent of Labor voters and more than 60 percent of Likud voters support this view."

If there's one thing the Greater Israel movement detests, it's the kind of "separation" called for at Oslo. Respected pollster Mina Tsemach asked Israelis: "Should or should not the prime minister-elect complete redeployment in Hebron as promised by his predecessor?" Fifty-seven percent said Netanyahu should redeploy the troops; 38 percent said he should not.

Redeploying in the last West Bank Palestinian city still under Israeli control is an important sign of Israel's commitment to commencing final status talks. While they want more assurance about their personal security, most Israelis also want the new prime minister to start building on the progress made by the previous government.

That will be impossible if Netanyahu permits new settlements or a provocative expansion of existing settlements, particularly in flash points such as Hebron. No credible Palestinian leader could negotiate with Israel if Jewish West Bank settlers are given permission to move toward the goal of tripling their population, an objective announced by Benny Kashriel, a settler leader.

If that happens, the peace process will be dead and the resulting violence from angry, hopeless Palestinians will begin a new cycle of recrimination.

THAT'S not what Israelis voted for when they chose Netanyahu. Seventy percent of Israelis say the "peace process gives them hope," according to a poll conducted by Sh'vakim-Panorama and reported in Maariv. I hope that's the reason the prime minister has left himself the option of permitting only the gradual expansion of some - but not all - settlements.

If he sanctions new housing in Jerusalem and its suburbs, he wouldn't be diverging too far from the Labor government's policies or the national consensus. It's quite possible the Palestinian leadership would begrudgingly accept such an expansion if its other goals are achievable.

Soon, the new prime minister will have to decide whether it's more important to pay off political debts to Sharon and extremist Israeli settlers, or obey the will of the Israeli majority. If he wants to avoid political ruin, he will have to choose the latter.

*Michael W. Sonnenfeldt is chairman of the executive board of Israel Policy Forum and vice-chairman of the United Nations Association of the United States in New York.

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