Israel's Netanyahu Does About-Face On Peace Stance

Likely deal with Arafat ignores right-wing

When Israeli troops get the order to withdraw from the West Bank town of Hebron, it will take between four and five hours. They will quite literally pick up their guns and drive away.

But the path preceding that expected order has involved a fundamental realignment by the players in the Mideast peace process - and has dragged on from weeks into months.

At a midnight meeting Jan. 14, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat were expected to finalize the Hebron deal - and in doing so put the derailed peace process back on track.

Having knocked down almost all of the obstacles to a deal, the imminent signing evinces a revolutionary willingness by hawkish Likud party leader Mr. Netanyahu to accept a land-for-peace formula with the Palestinians that he has argued against for most of his political career.

"For the Likud ideology this is a serious departure, a watershed, and it's definitely a bankruptcy of their entire vision of a Greater Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River," says Yossi Shein, a Tel Aviv University political scientist.

The massive diplomatic effort required to get Netanyahu and Mr. Arafat to commit to the Hebron deal also required the efforts of US officials, as well as a last-minute push by Jordan's King Hussein.

The Jordanian monarch arrived in Gaza for talks with Arafat last week, and convinced him to accept a compromise date of August 1998 by which Israel would complete three more troop withdrawals in rural areas of the West Bank. The renewed commitments will be part of a US-sponsored "Note for the Record" attached to the deal.

The Jan. 14 summit at Erez checkpoint between Israel and the Gaza Strip was expected to be a working meeting to wrap up the last details before the initialing of an agreement. American officials said they were having difficulty getting the Israelis and the Palestinians to agree on the language of US letters of assurance to each side, expressing American support of the process. Palestinians want something more akin to American "guarantees" that Israel will uphold its promises to carry out troop withdrawals.

After they initial the accord, Netanyahu and Arafat face the formidable task of convincing the public and lower-level politicos that the best possible agreement has been worked out. While Arafat has the power to sign the deal without approval of his ministers, he is keen to prevent disenchanted Palestinians from thinking that he is being too flexible with Israel.

For example, Israel's promise to carry out three more withdrawals by August 1998 - almost a year later than outlined in the original 1993 Oslo accords - is rejected by hard-line Palestinians who mistrust Netanyahu and oppose giving him any slack.

But Netanyahu, who wanted to delay the withdrawals by two years so he could use the land transfers as bargaining chips in all-important "final status" talks, is in an even more precarious position. With close to 40 percent of his Cabinet planning to vote against the new accord, disappointed Jewish settlers are now pressuring two wavering Cabinet members to join the naysayers in opposing the deal.

While Netanyahu does not need to pass the new accord in his Cabinet, failure to do so would be a great blow to the premier and may force him into breaking up his coalition to form a centrist unity government.

The settlers' umbrella organization, which enjoys great support from several right-wing parties, says it is willing to accept a Hebron redeployment. But the additional withdrawals cross their "red line," and the group has been in emergency meetings to plan protest measures. And while the Israeli right is perplexed by Netanyahu's reluctant assent to the accords he so vehemently attacked as an opposition leader, left-wing critics say he has secured a better deal neither in the Hebron arrangement nor in delaying the troop redeployments.

"I'm against changing the agreement - I don't believe that postponing is a solution," says Yossi Beilin, a parliament member who plans to run for his Labor party's leadership in June elections. "The longer the agreement takes the more we are susceptible to extremists on both sides."

The much-awaited Hebron redeployment is to take place within 10 days of the signing of the deal, which will turn 80 percent of the volatile West Bank bank town over to Palestinian control.

A place where some 500 Israeli settlers live in enclaves among 140,000 Palestinians, Hebron will face the rare challenge of being a city under the control of two nations, but without an actual border or wall to separate one from the other.

Since Jews and Muslims worship at the same holy shrine where the patriarch Abraham is supposed to be buried - and some 15,000 Palestinians will live in areas to remain under Israeli control - the two parts of Hebron will be divided with little more than checkpoints.

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