Netanyahu Would Roll Back Some Palestinian Powers


Nineteen years ago Menachem Begin defeated Shimon Peres, becoming Israel's first Likud prime minister. One of Begin's first official acts was to travel to Elon Moreh, a rough Israeli settlement perched on a hilltop outside Nablus. There, among the faithful, Begin proclaimed victory on behalf of the proponents of Greater Israel.

"There will be many more Elon Morehs," he thundered. "This is liberated Israeli land, and we call on young volunteers ... to come and settle here."

Today Greater Israel is dead, defeated by the intifadah (uprising), and buried by the Oslo agreements. While Yasser Arafat dreams of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, while Shimon Peres keeps nursing the hope of a "New Middle East," Begin's heir, Benjamin Netanyahu, admits Likud's dream of Greater Israel is beyond his grasp. "We are entering into an era in which we have to recognize that we cannot always fulfill our dreams," Netanyahu told the Jerusalem Post shortly before his election.

The new prime minister has endorsed the Oslo II accords' core compromise. He accepts Palestinian control over the principal cities of the West Bank and Gaza Strip as long as the future of Israel's settlements and 150,000 settlers is secured. Yet while Netanyahu is prepared to accept less than a total Israeli victory in the occupied territories, he is determined to exploit Israel's power to secure a position of preeminence throughout the region.

A new fault line

Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres wanted to end Israel's battle with the Arabs before Iran or Iraq entered the nuclear age. They saw Israel and most Arab states united by an antipathy toward the Islamic revival. For the new Israeli government, the primary fault line remains Israel's struggle for security in a region dominated by hostile states. Netanyahu backs a "realistic" peace between enemies, not a reconciliation among erstwhile friends.

Netanyahu believes that this is particularly the case with the Jordanians, with whom he has cultivated a close relationship since 1993. He supports strengthening what he describes as the "strategic consensus" linking the two countries. The core of this, he maintains, is their mutual opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state in their midst.

But Netanyahu is a product of Likud's less-militant wing. He witnessed the debacle of Likud's policies in Lebanon from 1982 to '85. In this year's fighting, he did not support proposals for ground forces to extend Israeli control north of its "security zone."

Netanyahu is no stranger to the use of force as a foreign-policy tool. This is key to Israel's new policy toward Syria. For it is over Syria where Likud's differences with Labor are most pronounced. Netanyahu does not believe that the circle must be closed with Syria before Israel's enemies add the next generation of missiles and unconventional weapons to their arsenals. As long as the Israeli Defense Force remains on the Golan Heights, he believes, the Syrians "do not have the option of war."

Netanyahu repudiates Peres's admission that the "Golan is Syrian." For him, it is part of Israel's Jewish heritage. Syria, if it had any claim to the place at all, irrevocably lost it in June 1967. Netanyahu also disdains any Israeli withdrawal of the Golan's 16 settlements and 13,000 settlers. He insists on a strategy of "non-territorial negotiations - agreements that do not involve withdrawing from the Golan" but that address concerns that Netanyahu believes Syrian President Hafez al-Assad holds more dear.

"I would tell Assad: 'You stand to lose from a state of war,' " Netanyahu said a year ago. "I would elaborate on the issues that are more important to Syria than they are to us, such as water, security arrangements, striking Syria from the US list of terror-supporting countries, and an arrangement in Lebanon acceptable to both countries." Netanyahu believes Syria can be compelled to engage in this process because he will enlist the US to adopt the same strategy against a noncompliant Assad that is being employed against Baghdad and Tehran - sanctions on trade, technology, and oil.

Palestinian policy

Netanyahu opposes any expansion of Palestinian power beyond what Mr. Arafat exercises today. He believes the Palestinian leadership can sustain itself on this basis. In some respects - notably the presence of Palestinian security services in east Jerusalem - he wants to roll back powers that Labor governments gave the Palestinian Authority.

Rabin and Peres saw Arafat as a "strategic partner." Netanyahu does not. This leaves a gaping hole in the Oslo process's foundation. Netanyahu proposes filling it by reclaiming Israel's right to enter Palestinian cities to maintain security. He believes that by expressing Israel's readiness to enter Nablus or Bethlehem or Kalkilya - which would violate the Oslo agreement - he will make actually doing so less likely, because Arafat would be forced to take measures against Israel's opponents to preempt Israeli action.

The new prime minister will seek to reopen the issue of Israel's redeployment in Hebron. Like Peres, he has no intention of ever evacuating any of the 140 West Bank and Gaza settlements or their 150,000 inhabitants, and he will make lands and money more easily available for expansion. He is more interested in the early application of Israeli sovereignty over the 70 percent of the West Bank and 30 percent of Gaza where the settlements are.

For Netanyahu, Jerusalem will forever remain Israel's undivided capital. Labor said the same thing, but Netanyahu insists he means it. Peres and the Palestinians were close to an agreement in principle on Jerusalem. That accord is now moot. "The dream of the Palestinians has been visibly shattered," explained one of Arafat's negotiators after Netanyahu's victory, "and this is a good thing." Peres used an iron fist no less potent than Netanyahu's in his dealings with Arafat, but he saw the advantage in wielding it in a velvet glove.

*Geoffrey Aronson is director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington.

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