JWR / Mideast Geopolitics

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Reader Response

L'Chaim / Living Jewish
January 30, 1998 / 3 Shevat, 5758

A last chance for the Mideast?

By Richard Z. Chesnoff

NO MATTER HOW HOT it's gotten for the scandal-haunted Clinton administration, the atmosphere at the White House was almost ice-cold when Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat came calling this week. Stepping away from the latest mess to rock his administration, Bill Clinton tried shocking the Mideast peace process into new life. And he and his crew of State Dept advisers -- dog-weary of foot-dragging on both sides - didn't mince words in separate but equally tough meetings with Yasser and Bibi. An Israeli source who saw Netanyahu just as he emerged from his first face to face with Clinton says the Israeli leader "looked white as a ghost." As for Arafat, his lower lip was trembling at full speed.

Clinton demanded new and rapid movement towards a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. That means solid Palestinian steps to crack down on terrorism and live up to security commitments countered by substantial new Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank -- and soon.

The question is, what's substantial, and how soon? Clinton reportedly suggested the Israelis redeploy in stages from an additional 15 per cent of the West Bank. But Netanyahu fears that anything Israel gives back now diminishes its bargaining position in final-status talks -- which under the Oslo Accords haven't really stared yet. Netanyahu wants final status talks to begin in tandem with any new redployment. Besides, argues Bibi, thanks to past Israeli withdrawals, the Palestinians already control -- alone or jointly with Israel -- some 27 per cent of the West Bank. That includes all major West Bank cities. As for the Gaza Strip, that's almost entirely Palestinian-controlled. If Arafat can't harness terrorists in these stretches of land, why should Israel give him more?

Then there's the problem of Israel's West Bank settlements. No one should be asking Israel to dismantle major settlements or to endanger its survival with a return to its pre-1967 indefensible borders. Still, there's a difference between sustaining safe borders and gobbling up most of the West bank. And there are real settlements -- and not so real settlements. According to one map being passed around in the Netantyahu camp, every tiny little trailer camp of zealot settlers is to become an Israeli enclave. That's ridiculous; 75 per cent of the 160,000 settlers live in only seven per cent of the West Bank. Israel must control that, as well as any other strategic areas essential to its security -- such as parts of the Jordan Valley and some of the highlands.

But Netanyahu must show flexibility. There's no doubt he's caught in a bind that even Samson would have found hard to break. His own government is hanging by a thread. He has to maneuver between right-wing extremists and moderates to stay politically alive. Already some of his most important coalition partners have abandoned him -- including Foreign Minister David Levy, an unlikely but still serious dove who felt Bibi wasn't doing enough to move peace forward. The Likud coalition's parliamentary majority -- never overwhelming -- has now dropped to one seat!

As David Makovsky, the erudite analyst of the prestigious Israel daily Ha'aretz puts it: "Any shmegegy in the Knesset could topple Bibi's government."

In the end, that may not be the worst thing that could happen. What may emerge from a new Israeli election is a coalition government of both Likud and Labor moderates -- one that could move forward with a peace that both guarantees Israeli security and reasonably fulfills Palestinan aspirations.

Meanwhile, maybe it's time for Clinton to retreat to Camp David with his two Mideast partners and hammer out a deal. It may even be one way to keep Lewinskygate at bay.


1/11/98: The Moment for Restitution Has Arrived

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News.

©1998, NY Daily News