At Last Palestinians Make Sense

It's not often that the Palestinian view of anything makes more sense to me than the positions of the United States and Israel, but that is the case in the current stalemate in the peace process. Right now, the United States seems hellbent on pushing a plan that neither party accepts. Israel, meanwhile, seems equally committed to reinforcing the already widely held view that it has no interest in advancing the peace process.

The Palestinian position is simple. Yasir Arafat wants all of the West Bank immediately for the creation of an independent state. Israel's offer of a paltry 9 percent does not advance his agenda more than a few inches as far as he's concerned. The American proposal adds maybe an additional inch rather than the miles he seeks; therefore, he has opposed it. Of course, in the Alice in Wonderland world of Middle East politics, Palestinian opposition doesn't really count, since they are not viewed as the party that has to make any concessions. Only Israel is obligated to demonstrate a constant willingness to capitulate to Arab and third party demands.

The U.S. position, by contrast, makes no sense. Sure, Clinton Administration officials are as determined as their predecessors to go down in history as the ones who finally brought peace to the region, but what's the point of floating plans that everyone has made clear are unacceptable? Israel, under Netanyahu, is not going to withdraw from another inch of territory until the Palestinians fulfill their commitments. The "rush to peace" school at the State Department has never been interested in Palestinian compliance, so they're not about to start now.

And what's with this magic 13 percent? Why is Netanyahu's proposal to withdraw from 9 percent of the West Bank unreasonable, but an extra 4 percent a demonstration of good faith? The Palestinians certainly don't see it that way. Anything less than the whole West Bank is viewed by them as little more than table scraps. Besides, if the U.S. starts at 13 percent, that will be the minimum the Palestinians accept, forcing Israel to bargain upward from there. The U.S. proposal has done the impossible, united Netanyahu's coalition and created common ground between Netanyahu and Arafat.

Netanyahu, his advisers and leaders of the American Jewish community have all said pushing this proposal is a mistake, so why isn't anyone at Foggy Bottom listening? And whatever happened to the American commitment to let the parties directly negotiate the outstanding issues and to allow Israel to determine its own security needs? I don't know how much longer people can continue to refer to Bill Clinton as the most pro-Israel President in history when he has shown nothing but hostility for the Israeli government now for almost three years.

Now we come to Benjamin Netanyahu, a leader who was best known before becoming Prime Minister for his ability to make Israel's case to the American public. Does anyone understand his position now? My question to him is similar to the one I'd ask U.S. officials, "What's the difference between a 9 percent withdrawal and 13 percent?" Is the extra 4 percent worth a fight with the United States?

The only answer that has come from Jerusalem is that Israel's security would be undermined by a bigger withdrawal. I believe in deferring to Israeli judgement on security matters, but it would be nice to get an explanation of how this small difference could create such a danger. Can't Israel find 4 percent somewhere in the West Bank that won't produce a threat? If not, then what hope is there for the peace process anyway? What Netanyahu seems to be saying is that Israel can give up only 9 percent more, giving the Palestinians some control over less than half the West Bank. Is that what he really sees as the final settlement? Does he seriously believe the Palestinians or international community will be satisfied with that?

All right, you say, the Palestinians will never be satisfied with less than the West Bank, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. True enough, but making a last stand over such a small percentage of the West Bank changes the frame of reference of the negotiations. I don't think that anyone who supports the peace process expected this 9 percent to be the last Israeli withdrawal. Even Netanyahu implied more concessions would be forthcoming as part of the final status negotiations. It makes sense for Israel to say it is not prepared to give up more land until the Palestinians comply with their obligations and to tie further redeployments to concessions on their part, but if Israel's security is truly at stake already, and no further withdrawals are contemplated, the Palestinians have no incentive to do anything.

The United States needs to go back to the longstanding position that it is up to the parties to negotiate themselves. It is not the State Department's role to dictate how much territory Israel can or should withdraw from.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, needs to use his communication skills to explain why Israel is in danger if it withdraws from more than 9 percent of the West Bank. And, if a more significant redeployment is dangerous, he needs to delineate the future of the peace process.