Inching Toward The 67 Lines

Long ago, Israel proposed to withdraw to the 1967 borders — with modifications — in exchange for peace. Yitzhak Rabin finally decided not to wait for peace and to more or less unilaterally move toward that result. Now, Benjamin Netanyahu is being dragged kicking and screaming to the same conclusion. The Wye Plantation talks brought the final settlement, a checkerboard Palestinian State next to a slightly reduced or enlarged (depending on your perspective) Israel much closer to reality.

That Netanyahu would eventually agree to a withdrawing from 13 percent of the West Bank was inevitable, so it is a shame it took 18 months of haggling and angering the President of the United States. No one took seriously Netanyahu's claim that this withdrawal would threaten Israel's security and it is not surprising this argument disappeared like the mirage it was over the last two weeks.

After successfully resisting U.S. pressure for so long, why did Netanyahu finally give in? One explanation is that he got the domestic political cover he needed from hardliners when Ariel Sharon agreed to support the withdrawal in exchange for becoming Foreign Minister. As a military man, Sharon certainly knew the security excuse was bogus and therefore could go along with the withdrawal in good conscience. Besides, he won a great personal victory by gaining new international standing and respectability through his new title, which is all the more sweet for him given the humiliation he suffered the last time he had such a powerful position (he was forced to resign as defense minister during the Lebanon War after the massacre at Sabra and Shatila).

It must have also become clear that the Palestinians now had their own card to play, a declaration of statehood in May. Though I have argued this would be good for Israel (especially before Israel turned over more territory to the Palestinians), Netanyahu does not see it that way. He also knows that every nation in the world will recognize "Palestine," except perhaps the most important one — the United States. According to the Associated Press, President Clinton (a.k.a. "the best friend Israel has ever had") threatened to recognize a Palestinian state if Israel did not reach an agreement on the withdrawal and that had to weigh heavily on Netanyahu's mind.

Netanyahu hoped to counter the pressure with the anger and might of the American Jewish community. Because of supportive resolutions and statements emanating from Congress and some Jewish organizations, the Prime Minister has misread the degree of support he has for his position. Reportedly, during the talks in Maryland, he was planning to call on the Jewish community to rise up against his opponents, but the reality is even the most ardent friends of Israel are not prepared to mount such a campaign and Jews on the left were doing just the opposite, urging Clinton to put greater pressure on Israel.

So what are the benefits to Israel of this latest agreement? Contrary to what the extreme right thinks, the withdrawal from territory not needed for security, and heavily populated by Palestinians, is alone a positive development. This is the only real accomplishment from Israel's perspective from the entire negotiation. Israel might reap a little public relations value from taking yet another step toward peace, but it was so long in coming, and so grudging, that argument will probably not resonate outside the center of the Jewish community.

The agreement also requires the Palestinians to amend their charter. This issue has been a red herring from the start, which is why Rabin and Peres ignored the Palestinian's failure to do it, so this "concession" was worthless.

The CIA is supposed to insure the Palestinians arrest alleged terrorists and confiscate weapons. It will be nice if the terrorists are finally arrested and kept in jail, but this agreement isn't going to force the Palestinians to be any more aggressive in deterring terrorism than they have been up to this point. Confiscate weapons? Get real. The Palestinians have so many guns stockpiled for the day they expect to fight the Israelis that whatever is confiscated will be trivial. From Israel's perspective, drawing the CIA into the agreement puts greater pressure on the Agency and the U.S., in general, to insure compliance with the agreement.

The Palestinians were clearly the big winners. They will now control roughly 40 percent of "Palestine." Agreement was apparently reached on opening a Palestinian airport in Gaza and providing safe passage for Palestinians moving between Gaza and other Palestinian areas. Israel was forced to concede one of its key demands, that terrorist suspects be extradited to Israel while releasing Palestinian prisoners held in its jails. Finally, a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee was established to discuss a third troop withdrawal (the Palestinians had hoped to secure a commitment).

Israel has now withdrawn from all the territory it needs to and purportedly received the security agreements it requires. Netanyahu should try to quickly nail down the final-status issues or decide them unilaterally. The remaining issues — Jerusalem, refugees, settlements — certainly should be resolved in the six months left under the original Oslo timetable. In fact, I'll resolve them in my next column.