JERUSALEM — 'Ok," Benjamin Netanyahu says before an interviewer even has a chance to sit down on the way into the Israeli prime minister's office, "shoot to kill."
The siege mentality that such deadpan humor suggests is perhaps not surprising to hear almost two weeks into a violent standoff with the Palestinians that most of the world attributes - unfairly and erroneously, Mr. Netanyahu complains - to Israel's decision to build a new Jewish housing project on formerly Arab land in East Jerusalem.
With Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat rejecting a full-blown crackdown on Islamic militants who would suicide-bomb the peace process into oblivion, and the Arab League threatening to reinstate the Arab boycott on trade with Israel, Netanyahu will arrive in Washington next Monday to hear US proposals of how to stop the unraveling of the peace process. Netanyahu, hoping to prevent the crisis from eroding the crucial US-Israel relationship, looks to Washington as the sole, sympathetic intermediary.
But at this point in the crisis, a compromise plan to break the impasse seems difficult to envision. Netanyahu says he definitely will not agree to even a temporary freeze on the building project in once-Jordanian land on the southeast border of Jerusalem that Palestinians claim as part of their future capital.
"What should we freeze next? If we freeze building in our capital, the capital of the Jewish people for the last 3,000 years ... where does it end?" Netanyahu asks, evidently agitated at the very suggestion.
"If we want to freeze construction ... of housing projects in our own capital we may as well shut down the country. It's not going to happen. And we're not obliged to do it by Oslo. Neither are we obliged to do it by history and by common sense."
But Palestinians view the building of what they see as an illegal settlement just outside Bethlehem as being fundamentally irreconcilable with peace. They're also angry over Netanyahu's nonnegotiable decision to withdraw from a fraction of West Bank land the Palestinians think they're entitled to under the Oslo agreements.
"Why is [a building freeze] the only thing to get back to the negotiating table?" he asks. "What is this nonsense?"
But news of a roundup yesterday of 30 Islamic Jihad activists in the Gaza Strip could confound Netanyahu's position that there can be no return to the process because Arafat is doing nothing to stop terror. These are tense times for Netanyahu, who this time last year was still a candidate running campaign ads that drove footage of bombed buses into viewers' minds with the slogan: "There is no security. There is no peace."
Now, Israelis are again afraid to get on buses early in the morning and send their teenagers to jobs at shopping malls. At home, Netanyahu faces mounting uncertainty over whether he will have to break up his coalition and form a national unity government in order to continue to survive no-confidence motions. A lingering corruption investigation also hangs over his future. On the lighter side of their dissatisfaction, Israelis were slamming Netanyahu this week for having his security police clear out the audience at the filming of a children's TV show that his own kids were to attend, sending kids with tickets home disappointed.
Now, bobbing restively in a chair pulled up close to his broad desk, he says he's "aghast" at the news coverage Israel has been getting. The man who has been called Israel's Great Communicator, is frustrated about not getting his version of events across. Journalists' questions are cut off before they are done being asked; there's more punch than finesse in his answers. In his mind, Israel has already upheld its commitments by redeploying from Hebron and releasing Palestinian women prisoners. The two Islamic suicide bombings this week that failed to kill any Israelis feeds his conviction that the only thing that can rejuvenate the peace process is Arafat turning the so-called "green light for terror" into a red one.
"We could discuss ad infinitum whether [bombers] only understood to have received the green light or actually did receive the green light. The one thing we cannot contest is that they haven't received a red light," he says.
He outlines his demands for resuming negotiations: "He has to act against them, he has to arrest their leaders, not just perpetrators, he has to arrest people responsible for the infrastructure and giving the orders. He has to collect their weapons, condemn the actions, he has to stop the support of the Palestinian-controlled press in favor of such actions and giving them legitimization."
Among the books on the shelves of his dark-wooden chambers is a book entitled "Yoni," a biography about his older brother, Yonatan, who was killed during the Entebbe antiterrorist operation 20 years ago. Since then, he has built a career of preaching a hard-line of no negotiations with terrorists, which in his rhetoric included Arafat and the rest of the Palestinian Liberation Organization until the run-up to elections last year. His analysis has moderated, but not changed completely.
"Well of course, there's been a change. They have stopped using terrorism directly, but unfortunately they have not stopped using terrorism indirectly. "The main tactic is they have the terror weapon used by the so-called opposition, the Islamic Jihad and Hamas. For the last year, Arafat has made it clear to them that he would crack down on them if they practiced terrorism without his giving the go-ahead.... Times have changed and they again practice terrorism."
Just a few months ago, when Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed the Hebron agreement and a "Note for the Record" to continue the peace process, Netanyahu began to speak about possibilities of what shape Palestinian autonomy might take in a final arrangement. He was quoted as mentioning Andorra - a tiny European principality - and Puerto Rico as potential models.
Now, with daily Israeli-Palestinian clashes and a handful of suicide bombings, his positions seem to have shifted from giving examples of self-rule scenarios to telling the Palestinians that they must lower their expectations.
"The idea that the way to resolve competing national claims is to have full-fledged, unbridled self-determination for every national group that demands it is not the beginning of a solution, it is the beginning of a monumental problem," he says. "They have to talk stop talking about impossible goals that will never be reached - [demanding] 90 to 100 percent of the [West Bank] territory, redividing Jerusalem, and the like. They need to adjust expectations just as we did for our own people."
In this atmosphere of hardening positions, the rhetoric of both sides seems to have regressed to the days of twisting truth to show how monstrous the other side is. Arafat denied Tuesday the existence of one of the suicide bombers, saying Israeli soldiers had opened fire on the man as well as a taxi-full of Palestinians. Netanyahu, meanwhile, asserts there is no grass-roots anger from the Palestinian street over his policies. "I think the street was fairly docile and had to be whipped up," he says.
Cynics say that while Netanyahu provided the bait for turning back the clock, Arafat made the self-destructive mistake of biting all too easily and unleashing Palestinian rage that could make restarting the peace talks nearly insurmountable. Perhaps Washington will have an solution for that. Certainly, the high-pressure strategy emanating from regional powers seem only to throw Israel back into the feeling of being surrounded by enemies - in the line of fire
Regarding threats of the Arab boycott, Netanyahu expressed deep disappointment that Egypt's 18-year-old "cold peace" with Israel seems to be growing glacial. Says Netanyahu: "It seems to that me that Egypt is playing a very unfortunate part in all of this by fanning the flames of radicalism rather than inducing a more moderate position."