Only as recently as December 30 (1996), Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was adamant that Israel would never leave Hebron. By the beginning of February, after meeting chairman Yassir Arafat and president Husni Mubarak at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, he was expressing strong optimism about the future of the peace process because of what he termed a new consensus for peace in Israel.
The new consensus had its origins in the overwhelming vote (87-17) for the Hebron accord in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, on January 16. Before the vote the Israelis were said to be divided into those who opposed the redeployment of the Israeli army from Hebron or elsewhere in the West Bank, and those who wanted peace with the Palestinians.
Dire warnings were issued of serious unrest among Israelis, with street demonstrations by religious fanatics, settlers, and right-wing activists, and even of rebellion by Israeli soldiers forced to redeploy from Hebron. In the event, the accord, effectively a renegotiation of the Oslo sellouts in favour of Israel, was approved both by the Israeli cabinet and the Knesset. The Israeli public took it in their stride, with no appreciable protest from anyone.
Even extreme right-wing pundits, like Yossef Lapid who writes normally fanatical leading articles in Ma’ariv, embraced the new consensus expressed in the knesset’s overwhelming vote, which reflects, as most polls have confirmed, public opinion accurately. To Lapid, this means a new type of ‘National Unity Government,’ as he indicated in his editorial on January 19. The editorial said:
‘If circumstances created in the Knesset an unplanned unity of 87 members, why not set it up deliberately. The right wing needs the left to withstand international pressure in the course of the future stages of the peace process. The left has vested interests in participating in government decision-making. The political process in the area will now focus on territories in the West Bank, densely populated by Jews. Neither Netanyahu nor Barak [almost certain to succeed Peres as opposition leader] are in a position to make concessions there, not even in the final agreement.’
Haim Baram, the Israeli journalist, warned in his column in the Middle East International that Lapid’s message should be taken seriously, as he had ‘succeeded in charting out the Israeli political map’ until the end of the century. This map envisages the emergence of an Israeli centre, which excludes communists, religious parties and Arabs to achieve new goals.
The new goals, as Baram sees them, aim at the partition of the occupied territories between Israel and the Palestinians ‘according to the revised formula of maximum territory to Israel, maximum Arabs to Palestine.’ It is even permissible for Palestinians to insist on sovereignty and ‘independence’ for the tiny parcel of land left to them, provided Jerusalem is excluded.
Even Ariel Sharon, the butcher of Sabra and Shatila, supports such centrist government, which will preach moderation but insist on keeping most of the settlements. And even if party politics and personal ambition prevent the formation of a Labour-Likud coalition, ‘the mechanism of consensus politics will endure,’ Baram says. The 87 Knesset members who voted for the Hebron accord are a majority which ‘could be easily harnessed behind strong anti-Palestinian policies.’
Since the main thrust of the new consensus is ‘hawkish policies embellished with dovish rhetoric,’ the Palestinians will find it difficult to depict Tel Aviv as extremist. According to Baram, a Likud-Labour government, using secular and security-oriented arguments and discarding messianic rhetoric is bound to be popular in the US and Europe. He urged the ‘Palestinians and their friends to analyse the newly emergent realities in order to tackle them early and firmly.’
Those realities took several steps forward on January 26, when a group of Labour and Likud legislators, who had been working to find common ground for future negotiations with Palestinians, announced a joint plan. The plan proposed the creation of a Palestinian ‘entity’ that has no army, the recognition of Israel’s right to defend itself and a commitment not to uproot any Jewish settlement on occupied lands. It also ruled out any possibility of Palestinian refugees returning to land occupied by Israelis but it arrogantly said their return to the Palestinian ‘entity’ could be discussed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The proposal also ruled out a return to the borders that existed before 1967 war, and recommended annexing the majority of Jewish settlements to Israel, and negotiating arrangements for outlying settlements by which their residents would retain Israeli citizenship and safe passage to Israel proper. Jerusalem would also remain the ‘undivided capital’ of Israel.
It is true that the proposals have not been officially approved by either party but they have been prepared by senior members of the two parties and are likely to serve at least as a ‘frame of reference in the talks on a final settlement with the Palestinians’, and in the debates within Israel over the settlements’ shape.
Six days after the unveiling of the plan, a 32-year-old Palestinian businessman from the West Bank city of Nablus died after being beaten by Arafat’s police while in their custody. The Palestinian justice minister Abu Medin was forced two days later to admit in an interview that Yousaf Baba was tortured by his Palestinian interrogators.
Baba’s death brought to 11 the number of Palestinians who have died in detention since Arafat’s Palestinian Authority took control of parts of the West Bank and Ghazzah Strip in May 1994.
The continued torture is a clear indication that Arafat’s previous pledge to prime minister Shimon Peres, and later to Netanyahu, to police for Israel the areas under his control is being kept to the satisfaction of the Israelis.
Arafat’s unwaivering determination to deliver is bound to have played a role in persuading the Israelis to forge a consensus and moderate their aggressive rhetoric to take back the crumbs they have thrown Arafat’s way under the Oslo accords. With Arab dictators backing the chairman’s treachery, further sellouts can be expected.
Muslimedia - March 1-15, 1997