Israel: Overplayed Hands

Lest we forget: The game everyone is supposed to be playing in the Mideast had its general rules set in Oslo.

The players leave the board in real or tactical anger from time to time. Referees like Dennis Ross rush in. Timetables slip. But, nonetheless, Oslo rules for this dead serious version of Monopoly remain the only ones in sight. The sooner both sides return to them, the sooner their peoples, inevitable neighbors, can get on to building decent futures.

Oslo mapped out a series of confidence-building steps involving Israel's return of West Bank land and administrative control to Palestinians in return for greater peace and security for Israel. With confidence theoretically built, the parties would turn to "final status" negotiations in 1999.

While Israel's team of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his successor, Shimon Peres, were at the table with Yasser Arafat, the play was tough but purposeful, often near a brink yet tinged with respect among adversaries. It survived radical terror on both sides (Hamas suicide bombings; Rabin's assassination).

When Benjamin Netanyahu replaced Peres at the table, he began to change both the rules and the atmospherics. His March decision to build a new Israeli settlement, Har Homa, at a choke point in southeast Jerusalem could only be termed a confidence-destroying move. It led to broken off talks and new bitterness, which a recent Arab suicide bombing has further heightened. The US, which had played hooky, worriedly reentered the game as fighting erupted in south Lebanon.

At present, it appears that all sides have overplayed their hands. Netanyahu permits settlement building because (1) he believes in it, (2) it helps his shaky political position, (3) it creates a new bargaining chip. Diplomat Ross appears to take Netanyahu's side by pressing Arafat to crack down on Hamas before talk about stopping Israeli settlements can go forward. He may be giving Netanyahu cover so he (and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright) can privately squeeze Netanyahu on settlements. Arafat, for his part, uses Ross's public tilt toward Israel as an excuse not to return to the table until Ms. Albright arrives later this month.

In a major Mideast speech last week, she pointedly asked Israel to abstain from provocative acts, like settlements on Arab land, and pressed Arafat to keep his commitment to crack down on terrorists.

We will shortly see whether the blunt Ms. Albright can get both sides to back off their overplayed hands. Both Palestinians and Israelis deserve as much from their leaders.

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