January 15, 1997 in Nation/World

Reality Fences In Israeli Dreams

Barton Gellman Washington Post
 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today renounced the dream that defined and divided Israeli politics for a generation.

The dream was his own, and that of his Likud Party, which has governed Israel according to its demands for 16 of the last 20 years. It saw an Israel unchallenged in sovereignty from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, with all of the West Bank in its hands.

That vision animated Netanyahu’s whole political life, and he ascended to Likud Party leadership as its foremost public voice.

Today, perceiving no choice, he set it aside. Having led his political movement to power, Netanyahu gave it two shocks that already have begun to tear it in half.

First, he consented to withdraw from most of Hebron, the city of Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs at the center of Israel’s biblical claim to the West Bank. When God, in the Old Testament, commanded Abraham and his descendants to live in Judea and Samaria, Abraham’s first act of obedience was to buy a burial plot in Hebron.

Second, and more fatefully, Netanyahu agreed to transfer large if unspecified rural stretches of the occupied territory - its undeveloped future - to Palestinian control by late next year.

Netanyahu’s core supporters might have forgiven him for shaking Yasser Arafat’s hand in September, depriving him of the longtime argument that there was no one to talk to about compromise.

But many said they cannot forgive - or even quite believe - that their standard-bearer is handing real assets to what he so often called the emerging “PLO terrorist state.”

“That’s about the end of what we call the Land of Israel movement,” said Yisrael Harel, founder and former chairman of the Yesha Council, the umbrella movement of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. “It means that all our efforts in the last 30 years are in vain. … It is better to bring down this government than allow this government to bring down our beliefs.”

In fact, the governing coalition is on the brink of self-destruction over the accord. Many of Netanyahu’s 66 legislators in the 120-seat Parliament are expected to desert him when the pact comes to a vote, though support from the Labor Party and other left-of-center factions will ensure he survives a vote of confidence. There also remained a possibility that Netanyahu’s Cabinet - divided eight to seven so far, with three still wavering - would reject the new pact. That would likely force Netanyahu to enter painful talks with the opposition to form a new government.

“He will require the backing of the center-left in order to advance his center-right agenda,” said Dore Gold, his chief foreign-policy adviser.

What brought Netanyahu so far, so fast, remains a matter of intense debate in Israel.

Gold argued that Netanyahu has proved “that when he says he’s committed to agreements that his predecessors signed, he means it.”

Yitzhak Shamir, the last Likud prime minister, said in an interview from retirement that Netanyahu has showed himself to be weak - abandoning “all the ideas of his movement” in order “to please the United States.”

Others say the costs of renouncing the talks altogether, first and foremost in broad Israeli public support, are higher than Netanyahu is prepared to pay. Polls have consistently shown that a large majority of Israelis support the Oslo accord, on which the pact was based, and want the peace process to continue.

Ron Pundak, the Tel Aviv historian who helped launch Israel’s secret diplomacy with the PLO in 1993, said Netanyahu was obeying the universal imperative of democratic politics.

“He would like to be elected again,” Pundak said. “I believe his drive for success is stronger than his ideology.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email