Israel's Big Peace Offer: Eye-Opener or Eyewash?

Sources hint at 40 percent withdrawal from West Bank. But is offer just to appease US?

Israel's hard-line leader has often said he might surprise the world and reach a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

Now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will consider withdrawing troops all at once from about 40 percent of the West Bank - up from the incremental, single-digit percentages he was offering just months ago - before drawing up a final map of the disputed area in peace talks, say Israeli political sources.

Though that falls far short of the 90 percent Palestinians say they are due to receive during this time, it may meet US expectations for a "significant and credible" withdrawal from areas Israel occupied in 1967.

Critics say the premier's offer of specific pullout terms may be merely aimed at mending fences with the US rather than delivering on the 1993 Oslo accords. On Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu's Cabinet agreed in principle to withdraw from more of the West Bank.

Tensions between Washington and Jerusalem have been palpable, with the Clinton administration blaming stagnation in the peace process largely on Netanyahu - and turning up the heat on him because of America's recent tensions with its Arab allies.

President Clinton refused to meet with Netanyahu during the Israeli leader's recent visit to the US, and sent messages suggesting he was disappointed that Netanyahu has not called a timeout on expansion of West Bank Jewish settlements.

Netanyahu's Cabinet voted on Sunday to carry out a redeployment from areas to be turned over to Palestinian control, but made no decision on how much land would be involved.

The Israeli premier also said that the withdrawal would not take place for another five months, a period in which the Palestinian Authority would be judged on whether it adequately fights terrorist groups and fulfills other commitments.

The series of accords signed between 1993 and 1995 stipulated that after Israel withdrew from seven Palestinian cities in the West Bank, it would make three further troop redeployments before "permanent status" negotiations begin.

While Israel's former Labor government saw these moves as incremental steps towards peace, the Likud Party's Netanyahu sees them as part of a formula that robs Israel of bargaining chips before the most crucial round of negotiations begins.

Under a new timetable brokered with American intervention in January, Netanyahu reaffirmed Israel's commitment to carry out the three withdrawals. The first was due eight months ago, but Palestinians rejected an Israeli decision to complete it on the grounds that it was too small.

Now, Netanyahu wants to combine the first two to make one large redeployment and move directly to talks on key issues, whose resolutions are supposed to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by 1999. The third withdrawal would instead take place when the two sides reach a final peace settlement.

With Netanyahu struggling to hold together a coalition riddled with dissidents and would-be defectors his logic may be understandable.

If he cannot afford to ignore pressure from the US and from peace-hungry Israelis, he might be better off giving his right-wing constituents the bitter pill of forfeiting territory in one serving, rather than in stages that will leave him more vulnerable to reproach from the extreme right.

David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu's spokesman, says that the accelerated formula is not an effort to shirk Israeli responsibilities, and points out that many Israeli doves have backed putting the peace process on a fast track.

But he says that cannot happen until the Palestinians fulfill promises to fight terrorism and extradite wanted murder suspects to Israel.

"We'll move a substantial amount, but we have to know that we're going to come out with some concrete results," says Bar-Illan. "The evacuation of territory, if they are not fighting terrorism, just expands the area from which terrorists can operate."

Palestinian reaction to the vote is mixed. A spokesman for President Yasser Arafat calls it encouraging, but chief negotiator Saeb Erekat says postponing the redeployment for five more months to keep a report card on the Palestinians - as well as conducting just one redeployment - are in violation of understandings signed by Netanyahu.

"I'm really surprised to see that they've in principle agreed on something we agreed on long ago," says Mr. Erekat. "If Mr. Netanyahu needs copies of the agreement, I can send it to him."

Erekat says that on Jan. 12, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators reached a new timetable for the redeployments with mediation by US peace envoy Dennis Ross. The meeting resulted in a letter from then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher to President Arafat, pledging that the US would oversee implementation.

"We're really hoping to hear from the Americans on this," Erekat says, suggesting that the Clinton administration should reject Netanyahu's plan on the grounds that it violates the American-drafted document.

Clinton administration officials let their dismay with Netanyahu become known during the last month, telling Netanyahu that the US was having a difficult time patching together a coalition of Arab allies in the recent standoff with Saddam Hussein because of perceptions that Washington is tough on Iraq but takes a soft line with the Israeli government.

Diplomatic sources here say Washington is withholding comment until more is known.

Some analysts here warn that conditioning the redeployment on Arafat's ability to prevent further terror attacks raises the likelihood that the withdrawal plan will be perpetually hampered.

"To be sure, there is no definition or meaning of what a successful fight against terrorism is or should be," says Baruch Kimmerling, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"All Netanyahu needs is political free time from American pressures in order to prepare for early elections," he says, suggesting that the premier is campaigning in the event that his government will be brought down by a no-confidence motion.

The new decision "is a signal to the center's floating voters that he is not a prisoner of the chauvinistic, religious fundamentalist bloc; he is pragmatic."

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