It is three months now since the word went out from Jerusalem and Washington that an agreement on an Israeli withdrawal from most of Hebron was “imminent.”
That, paradoxically, may be the reason it has taken so long. Because for Yasser Arafat, a signal that the other side was ready to deal was a signal to get to work.
Within weeks of the October summit meeting in Washington, at which the “intensive and urgent” new talks were begun on Hebron, the last West Bank city under Israeli occupation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went from haughtily predicting a quick deal on his own terms to the humiliating position of waiting day after day for a nod from the Palestinian leader to seal a deal that a growing number of his conservative government regarded as a sellout.
In the end, Netanyahu’s terms for withdrawal were almost the same as those proposed by the former Labor government he succeeded in May. But now it was Arafat - backed by the Palestinians, the Arabs and much of the world - who took the haughty tone, telling the American mediator, Dennis Ross, “There are more burning issues than signing the agreement.”
It was a bold and dangerous ploy. The “burning issues” Arafat spoke of were nothing less than a commitment from Netayahu to comply with far more difficult provisions of the Israeli-Palestinian agreements than Hebron - namely, those calling for the staged withdrawal of the Israelis from much of the West Bank beyond the Palestinian towns.
Arafat’s demand has put the entire Hebron agreement in danger with the Israeli Cabinet, where one minister after another has declared opposition to a deal that includes further troop withdrawals. Although a pullback from Hebron does not technically require government approval, Netanyahu has pledged to bring his first Palestinian agreement before his coalition.
In failing to sign, Arafat was also defying the Americans. Ross had returned to Israel on Dec. 21 armed with letters from President Clinton and intent on moving past Hebron. And though he maintained his tactful public silence, his expression grew grimmer after every session with Arafat.
But then brinkmanship has always been a primary tool of Arafat. In the Israeli-Palstinian equation, he has never had much military or economic leverage. He has had no constant international patron, no real skill for getting his message out over the media, not even wholehearted support from the other Arabs.
What he does have is three decades of experience in exploiting the slightest advantage, and, unlike the ideologically divided Israelis, a clear notion of his goal - a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Arafat has also had the advantage that it is Netanyahu who has been on trial, not he. The conservative prime minister was elected on a platform that sharply criticized the IsraeliPalestinian agreements of 1993 and 1995, known as the Oslo accords, and at the same time pledged to comply with them. Arafat, by contrast, was a certified partner in the peace.
Thus, both in Israel and abroad, everything Netanyahu did and said was scrutinized for a sign. And in the first six months he managed to please no one: neither his conservative constituents, who did not find a solid commitment to expand what they call the “Land of Israel,” nor among supporters of the peace, who viewed with anxiety the growing frustration of the Palestinians and neighboring Arabs.
Netanyahu has argued, with justice, that the former Labor government was at least as delinquent in complying with the Oslo accords. The very first Israeli obligation, the release of female Palestinian prisoners, has never been fulfilled, nor has a “safe passage” road to connect the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
But Arafat was largely prepared to close his eyes to these oversights in the faith that Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the Labor leader, shared his commitment. Netanyahu was given no such leeway, either by Arafat or the world.
In the explosion of violence that followed the opening last September by Israel of a new tourist tunnel exit near Muslim shrines in Jerusalem, it was Netanyahu who bore the brunt of international reproach. And when a soldier with a history of mental problems opened fire on the Arab market in Hebron this past week, the Israeli clamor for greater security for the handful of Jews in the city came to sound even hollower.
The impression it left was that it was not the Jews in Hebron who needed to be protected from the Palestinians, but vice versa.
The problem for Netanyahu, and for Peres and for Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister before him, was that, unlike the Palestinians, who know their goal, the divided Israelis have never shaped a consensus on theirs.
As The Jerusalem Post wrote in an editorial on Friday, Peres lost the election last May because he failed to define the limits of the peace. But Netanyahu has fallen into even greater political trouble, the newspaper wrote, “because he has not yet succeeded on either front - neither in convincing the world that he is committed to peace nor convincing his voters that he will enforce” those limits to Israeli concessions.
Thus Hebron became not only a step on the way to peace, but a test of the entire peace. That was what Arafat meant when he told Ross that “there are more burning issues than signing the agreement.”
Contrary to the new Israeli government’s perception that Arafat would be overjoyed once it gave way on Hebron, the Palestinian leader in fact soon demonstrated that he views the city not as an end in itself, but as a way station on the road to Palestinian statehood.