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Big Stakes, Brinkmanship Hold Up Deal on Hebron

By Ilene R. PrusherSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 3, 1997


"Summit expected: Arafat, Netanyahu May Sign Hebron Deal Today or Tomorrow" blare the banner headlines in local newspapers.

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But such headlines have been running for more than a month, baffling many who are waiting for an agreement on the long-overdue transfer of power so critical to the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat were expected to meet yesterday, though officials on both sides said that the meeting was not sure to end in a signed deal.

This isn't the first time that Israelis and Palestinians have squabbled in 11th-hour disputes just before major agreements were signed.

The multiphase Oslo peace accords, named for the Norwegian capital where they were brokered more than three years ago, set out a structure for eventual Palestinian self-rule. So far, the implementation has been full of delays because disputes have arisen or the conditions for implementation didn't seem ripe.

But the crisis of confidence between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat - as well as the leaders' fears about whether they'll be supported by their respective constituencies after the latest round of negotiations is over - has kept a deal from coming to fruition.

Last-minute brinkmanship

When Arafat was about to initial one set of the accords, for example, he set off a crisis by objecting to details in the maps just moments before the signing ceremony.

Those who work closely with him say he has a near obsession with symbols of Palestinian independence, which has led to his new demand for joint control over the Hebron shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, contrary to the agreement.

"He's concerned with the symbolic issues," says a top American official here. "He doesn't want the Palestinian police to be held up to ridicule by Palestinians. The symbolism of certain issues is causing him to hesitate."

Moreover, Arafat often sees the anticipation of the world before any major signing as an opportune moment to gain last-minute concessions, on the assumption that the expectation of a breakthrough will put added pressure on the Israelis.

In this case, Arafat and other Palestinian negotiators say they are due added bonuses to compensate for their adjustments in the redeployment arrangement. They want, among other things, a mass release of some of the 2,200 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, doesn't believe he can politically afford to concede too many issues.

While polls show that most Palestinians believe that Arafat has been taking a sufficiently hard line in negotiating with the Israelis, Netanyahu is more susceptible to rebuke.

Jewish settlers, who helped elect Netanyahu, and others on the right wing are crying betrayal, while his left-wing predecessors blame him for unnecessary foot-dragging in favor of making "cosmetic" changes rather than real security improvements.

Cabinet troubles

Israeli media reports now estimate that Netanyahu can only count on 11 of his 18 Cabinet ministers to vote in his favor on the redeployment plan. The Cabinet vote isn't binding on Netanyahu but is a test of political support.

Ministers of the National Religious Party, a major partner in Netanyahu's coalition government, say they will vote against the deal because it doesn't satisfy the security needs of Jewish settlers in Hebron.

After seeing the agreement, a minister from the Russian immigrant party and at least two from Netanyahu's own Likud Party say they, too, can't support the deal.

Complications only seem to be growing.