Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged victorious from the fiercest political battle of his term in office Wednesday as he found himself defending a peace process he once rejected and whose future remains shrouded in dispute with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu smashed through opposition in his Cabinet as he presented a new U.S.-brokered accord, completed in the pre-dawn hours, for redeploying troops in the West Bank city of Hebron where about 400 Israelis live among more than 100,000 Palestinians.
The 11-7 vote supporting Netanyahu came in a marathon Cabinet session marked by venomous arguments over the scope of future withdrawals from Israelioccupied territory and accusations that Netanyahu is abandoning the Jewish homeland promised in the Old Testament.
The 12-hour closed-door meeting reached a stormy climax with the resignation of Benjamin Begin, science and technology minister and son of the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the man who made peace with Egypt.
It is a measure of Netanyahu’s enigmatic personality - he is so adept at campaigning and television sound bites, so elusive at defining policies and governing clearly by them - that many Israelis still wondered Wednesday where he is taking them.
Although Netanyahu shook hands twice with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, after they had concluded the Hebron accord, he made no comment then and he maintained his public silence throughout the day, declining to come forward to explain or defend his actions to the Israeli public.
Supporters of the peace process hailed the Hebron deal, and welcomed Netanyahu to their camp. But critics on the far right, including members of his own Cabinet, accused the prime minister of betraying his lifelong ideological commitment to an enlarged Israel with borders described in the Old Testament.
Moreover, Netanyahu campaigned on his opposition to trading land for peace, yet he has now approved a deal committing Israel to do just that. And he described Arafat as a terrorist, a man he didn’t care to meet, yet has met with Arafat at least four times since taking office in June.
Many pressures prompted Netan- yahu to concede that the peace process begun in Oslo by his Labor Party predecessors, now the largest opposition party, is the only alternative to prolonged conflict, even a return to war.
The heavy hand of America was important, as was the tenacious legal power of the Oslo accords, which carry the weight of international treaties. Netanyahu also was propelled toward compromise by the violence that broke out in September when about 60 Palestinians and about 15 Israelis died in riots that resulted directly from frustrations over a failing peace process.
But Netanyahu was able to buy time, and has postponed to mid-1998 the conclusion of further troop withdrawals from the West Bank in advance of solving the most vexing issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: final borders, the fate of Jewish settlers and Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital. Those “final-status” talks must conclude by May 1999 under the Oslo accords.
In Middle Eastern politics, the time to that important deadline is an eternity.
In the immediate future, the Israeli Knesset is expected to take up the Hebron accord today. The more centrist parliamentarians in Netanyahu’s coalition are likely to join with the Labor-left vote to provide a majority for the deal.
In Palestinian-ruled Gaza, Arafat’s Cabinet approved the Hebron agreements Wednesday, giving its quick endorsement to nearly four months of mediation by President Clinton’s special Mideast envoy, Dennis Ross.
While Clinton and other world leaders hailed the agreement as a milestone on the road to a comprehensive Mideast peace, Arabs and Jews in Hebron and across Israel and territories expressed skepticism about the future.
The accord calls for a resumption of the talks on a permanent agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization within two months of the implementation of the Hebron pullback.
The Hebron agreements include a new Israeli-PLO protocol on security arrangements for both sides, including the protection of Hebron’s 400 Jews after the redeployment, and a Note for the Record prepared by the Americans on reciprocal obligations still unfulfilled from earlier accords.
The note outlines mutual agreements on further Israeli and PLO responsibilities. For Israel, they include three further Israeli pullbacks in the West Bank, the first of which is to begin the first week of March. They also call for the release of Palestinian prisoners and immediate talks on opening safe passage routes between Arab self-rule areas and a Palestinian airport and seaport in Gaza.
For the Palestinians, they include revising the Palestine Liberation Organization National Charter to remove calls for Israel’s elimination, effectively fighting terror and disarming extremists, cutting the police force by half, to about 18,000, and closing offices in Jerusalem.
Accompanying letters of assurance from Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Netanyahu and Arafat specify U.S. understandings of Arafat’s commitment to fight terrorism and Netanyahu’s obligation to finish the third West Bank pullback by mid-1998.
In the rainy streets of Hebron, the last of seven West Bank towns to be handed over to Palestinian self-rule, Palestinian workers put up welcome posters of Arafat Wednesday and Jewish settlers complained they had been betrayed by the government many helped elect.
Israeli soldiers and police beefed up security ahead of their pullback from 80 percent of the town, trying to prevent possible acts of violence by opponents of the accord. With Knesset approval, the redeployment is to take place within 10 days but may happen much sooner.
After turning over most of Hebron to the Palestinian Authority, Israeli forces will continue to patrol and secure about 20 percent of the town, including the Jewish settler buildings and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the Herodian-walled building holy to Jews and Muslims as the burial site of the biblical patriarch Abraham.
“Nothing will change. The Jewish (state) will not give us anything,” complained Kasim Sunukrut, 45, a Hebron baker of ceramic artwork. “They want to keep everything.”
Akram Khafisheh, 22, who lives on Shuhada Road near the Jewish quarter, said he thought the deal would be good for Hebron and the security of Palestinians, noting, “We need Palestinian police and Arafat to control Hebron because the settlers are very dangerous.”
Hebron settlers met Wednesday to try to devise a strategy for dealing with what they feel is imminent danger when armed Palestinian police control most of the city.
“We’ll defend ourselves,” remarked a 36-year-old settler in the hilltop Jewish enclave of Tel Rumeida, who asked to be called “Michelle,” not her real name. “As far as I’m concerned, a Palestinian walking around in a uniform with a gun, he’s still a terrorist in my eyes.”
Baruch Marzel, a former leader of the outlawed right-wing Kach movement, accused Netanyahu of betraying his voters, the state of Israel and the Jewish people. “He brought a very big danger into the heart of Israel, and a lot of Jews will be killed for it,” he said. “The people (Israeli lawmakers) that pass this will be responsible for what will happen.”