Netanyahu shifts the game plan

The Israeli leader, facing a no-confidence vote, ups demands on Palestinians in fulfilling peace agreement.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat made the kick. President Clinton assisted the play. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - moved the goal post.

Mr. Netanyahu has applauded the Palestinians' vote to cancel parts of their founding charter calling for Israel's destruction. But, after a summit meeting Dec. 15 with Mr. Arafat and Mr. Clinton, Netanyahu said that Israel would not carry out another troop withdrawal from the West Bank Dec. 18 as scheduled.

Moreover, he said he would freeze all additional peace moves until the Palestinians stop incitement against Israelis, curb all violence in the territories, hand over 30 wanted Palestinian suspects to Israel, collect illegal weapons held by Palestinians, and cease threats to declare a state on May 4, when the five-year interim peace accord technically comes to an end.

For a prime minister who has spent the last 2-1/2 years telling Washington that Israel would proceed only on the basis of reciprocity, it was not the kind of give-and-take Clinton had hoped for as he readied to return home to face a looming impeachment process.

But many Israelis say their leader is no longer acting as Netanyahu the prime minister - he's now acting as Netanyahu the candidate.

As soon as Dec. 21, Netanyahu faces a no-confidence vote in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. Hard-liners in his government have threatened to withdraw their support if he pulls back from another 5 percent of the West Bank, as is stipulated in the Wye accords.

Even if he manages to survive a rebellious Knesset, he will probably not be able to avoid the tide of Israeli politicians who are demanding that either new elections be called or a national unity government - with right- and left-wing parties sharing power - be formed.

Reelection campaign under way

To that end, Netanyahu's reelection campaign has already begun. And until he determines who can actually secure his place in power, he is trying to keep both ends of the political spectrum happy. On the one hand, he tells hard-liners that he is taking a tough stand against the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, he can tell moderates that his moves to implement the peace accords - including a troop withdrawal last month, the release of some Palestinian prisoners, and a go-ahead to open the Gaza airport - prove he is actually a hard-bargainer rather than a hard-liner.

"Netanyahu is now a lame-duck prime minister because there is no way that his coalition can cross the May 4 deadline," says Menachem Hornung, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"And if he can win the elections, he'll probably win a coalition according to his tastes, and not be threatened every week." Meanwhile, Dr. Hornung adds, Netanyahu is trying to figure out the best timing for a new election, depending on the polls.

So far, surveys have shown that he would beat Ehud Barak, the chairman of the opposition Labor Party. But, if he were to be challenged by Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a popular former Army chief who may be forming a new centrist party, polls suggest Netanyahu would lose.

Disappointing summit

Mr. Clinton did not completely mask his disappointment that the summit meeting did not end with a promise from Netanyahu to carry out the redeployment. "I hope we can pretty much stick to the schedule that's there. We think we should stick to the schedules as much as possible. We've worked very hard to get this back on track," Clinton said at the Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza.

Soon after Clinton left the checkpoint for a trip to the West Bank town of Bethlehem and then the legendary Jewish fortress of Masada, Netanyahu said the change of the charter was just one in a litany of commitments that the Palestinians had to uphold.

"If they fulfill their part, then we'll fulfill ours," Netanyahu said. "It's not a question of stopping violence 12 hours prior to the arrival of the United States president. No, it has to be a permanent end to violence."

Some argue that Netanyahu's gambit has backfired altogether. The far right in Israel still insists that the Palestine Liberation Organization aims to destroy Israel. Meanwhile, Netanyahu came under criticism from even dovish left-wingers, who say that, in return for a vote on a defunct charter, he brought an American president to Palestinian-ruled soil - in effect aiding the US recognition of Palestinian statehood.

There are some indications that some differences could be hammered out in the coming weeks. Clinton says negotiators will meet to discuss outstanding issues creating the most tension, such as the release of security prisoners held in Israeli jails and the opening of a "safe passage" route between Gaza and the West Bank. In a few weeks, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will return to the region to oversee implementation of the remaining issues outlined in the Wye accords.

The Clinton administration had hoped for substantive discussions on the "final status" issues during this trip - consisting of six key matters that Israel and the Palestinians are supposed to resolve, such as the status of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees.

But talk of the endgame never really made it to the agenda, because Arafat and Netanyahu are effectively still bickering over issues that should have been settled at Wye two months ago.

Arafat, complaining about Netanyahu's reluctance to implement the accords, has often said that he's "not asking for the moon." Some Israelis now suggest that Netanyahu is.

"Are we such heroes that we could disarm our own extremists?" asks Uri Savir, who was Israel's chief negotiator under the former Labor government, which reached the Oslo peace accord with Arafat in 1993. Says Mr. Savir of Netanyahu's demand that Arafat confiscate weapons from Palestinians: "It's not an easy matter to disarm people."

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