Mideast: Now, the Hardest Part

Israeli, Palestinian chiefs face hard-line opponents to the deal struck at Wye talks.

As Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu arrived home from Washington yesterday after signing a deal with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on a West Bank land transfer, Jewish settlers lined the road from the airport, calling for his downfall.

The road to implementing the "Wye Memorandum" signed Friday also looks lined with obstacles. They will make the next three months much more trying than any of the all-night negotiating sessions of the past week.

As the two leaders return home, each faces challenges over how to keep up his part of the bargain - and keep power.

Mr. Netanyahu must try to survive a likely upheaval in his coalition as right-wingers who oppose compromise on even one more acre threaten to bolt his government and offer a more hawkish candidate in his place.

Mr. Arafat must try to get members of the Palestine National Council, spread all over the globe, to gather and amend their founding charter calling for the destruction of Israel.

Those representatives, some of whom completely reject the 1993 Oslo accords calling for the land transfer, have the power to effectively depose Arafat as their leader.

Which is not to say that the new accord does not offer the promise of real progress and the chance to begin discussion of the crucial "final status" issues.

Both sides stand to get something that could improve the lives of average people - the peace fruits of which both sides say they haven't tasted nearly enough. Palestinians are finally to win the opening of two safe passage routes between the West Bank and Gaza, freeing thousands from the barriers to reaching work, school, and family on a regular basis.

About 750 of the more than 2,000 Palestinians being held in Israeli jails - considered to be political prisoners since most were arrested for "nationalist acts" before the first historic peace deal was signed in 1993 - are to be set free. And Israelis might be able to rest a little easier knowing that Arafat's commitment to fight terrorism will be backed up by regular monitoring and intelligence-sharing by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The CIA is to make regular checks of Palestinian-run prisons to make sure that convicted terrorists are not set free a few months after their arrest.

Conditions to be met

But reaching almost any of those accomplishments requires the completion of some act of compliance by the other side.

With every step the Palestinians make toward upholding a previous agreement commitment, Israel will respond by upholding one of theirs. By this formula, Israel will only release prisoners and open the safe passage after Arafat gets the charter changes under way and shows that he's making concrete steps to curb Muslim fundamentalists.

In this long list of quid pro quos, the Israeli redeployment from 13 percent of the West Bank - the crux of the deal - is not scheduled to be completed until the last weeks of the 12-week plan. And that, in addition to the political battle that Arafat and Netanyahu will have to wage with their critics, seems to leave opportunities for things to get sidetracked.

"We're trying to be hopeful, but so far we feel pretty cynical about the implementation of this agreement," says Albert Aghazarian, a Palestinian political analyst at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.

"We're still not sure if they found a formula for it to work, or if it is a way to dismiss the Palestinians into their Bantustans," says Professor Aghazarian, making a reference to apartheid in South Africa.

He says Arafat will have a difficult time making an unpopular crackdown on Hamas, the Islamic militant group, but could ultimately manage to convince the required two-thirds of the members of the Palestinian council-in-exile to change the offensive paragraphs Israel wants deleted.

"Arafat will be able to carry the day as long as he can move the process forward," says Aghazarian. "He has a record of being able to juggle through such situations. He can say, 'We're moving slowly, but we're moving.' And they'll accept that, but not if it's only about fulfilling Israelis' conditions."

Popular, political tests

A majority of Israelis support the new agreement with the Palestinians, according to a poll published by the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, in which 74 percent of the Israelis polled supported it; 18 percent were opposed.

For Netanyahu, the first big test will be facing his own Cabinet later this week, when it will be given a chance to vote on the Wye agreement. Several ministers in the Cabinet are promising to vote against the deal, but Netanyahu is depending on Ariel Sharon - the hard-line ex-general Netanyahu just appointed as foreign minister and chief of negotiations - to lend his support to it.

"A lot depends on whether Sharon truly supports it because with his considerable weight, he could bring in other ministers," says David Kimche, the former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

That will make right-wingers think twice about voting against Netanyahu for fear that they would not be able to produce a more nationalist candidate in the next elections, which are widely expected to be held sooner than originally scheduled.

"They don't like the deal the prime minister has come up with, but they don't want to bring him down and let the Labor Party in through the back door," says Mr. Kimche.

As it is, Labor and the other left-wing parties have overtly promised to give Netanyahu a "safety net" when the deal is brought for a vote in the Knesset. And that, in turn, has sparked debate in the Labor Party about whether to join a national unity government with Netanyahu if and when the settlers, represented by the National Religious Party, quit the coalition.

Netanyahu, it seems, has not given up on trying to keep them in the fold. "We love you," he told settlers at a press conference when he arrived. "We are fighting a battle for you. And there is not another government that will fight it for you like this government."

Many, however, are not convinced.

"He won't be able to hold on too much longer as prime minister," says Nissim Cohen, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish studies teacher who lives in the Psagot settlement, nose-to-nose with the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

"Even if we don't have another candidate lined up, we will bring him down. Our leaders are formulating a plan for that as we speak."


* The deal struck Friday at Wye Plantation in Maryland - after nine days of meetings - would give Palestinians a further 13.1 percent of the West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

It outlines a 12-week "phased handover" of that land in return for Palestinian implementation of previous security commitments.

Under the deal, the Palestinians are to strike provisions in their charter that call for the destruction of Israel. They also agreed to further combat anti-Israel Palestinian militants in areas under their control.

Israel also took steps to allow a Palestinian airport in the Gaza Strip, and to allow Palestinians "safe passage" between the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

- Wire services

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