World

An illusive peace

Hebron keeps Israel on a tightrope

ERIC SILVER January 13 1997
World

An illusive peace

Hebron keeps Israel on a tightrope

ERIC SILVER January 13 1997

An illusive peace

World

Hebron keeps Israel on a tightrope

Private Noam Friedman believed that he could scuttle the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with a single burst of gunfire. The 22-year-old off-duty soldier was spotted on New Year’s Day, loitering in the crumbling Arab casbah in the biblical city of Hebron. In his army uniform, Friedman attracted little notice until he stopped at the edge of a fruit and vegetable market and sprayed shoppers with an M-16 assault rifle. By the time patrolling Israeli Lieut. Avi Buskila disarmed him, Friedman had wounded seven Palestinians, two of them critically. “I am perfectly normal,” Friedman insisted as he was taken away in a blue police van, although he had a record of mental instability. He said he had come to Hebron—the city that for months had been the object of tortuous talks between Israel’s Likud government and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority—to kill “enemies of the Jews.” And he shouted, “Hebron now and forever,” the rallying cry of the city’s militant Jewish settlers.

Negotiators on both sides immediately stressed that the attack would not stop them from concluding an agreement—called for ur der the 1993 Oslo peace accords—to withdraw Israeli forces from most of the city. Yet the incident was a chilling reminder that Hebron, with its 150,000 Arab and 450 Orthodox Jewish residents, is a powder keg easily ignited. Nor do the explosive tensions stop at the city gates. Two days after the attack, a group of Israelis briefly defied a moratorium on new settlements and set up a trailer compound outside the Palestinian-controlled town of Ramallah. Meanwhile, the U.S. state department issued a travel warning for Americans to

avoid Hebron, the West Bank and Jerusalem, citing potential terrorism. Although Washington said its warning was general, the Muslim extremist group Islamic Jihad vowed it would step up terror attacks. And with no signatures on a Hebron accord, another time bomb was ticking for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu—this one inside his own cabinet.

Seven out of 18 right-wing and religious government ministers had signalled that they would vote against the Hebron redeployment pact, which several times last week was said to be within hours of signing. Agriculture Minister Rafael Eitan voiced their fears: “Hebron is the gateway through which the Arabs will march to destroy the whole Zionist enterprise.” Said Science Minister Benny Begin, son of the late Likud prime minister Menachem Begin: “Hebron is the last dam. When it bursts, the deluge will come.”

By Thursday, frustrated U.S. envoy Dennis Ross made it clear that the holdup was due to a Palestinian desire to nail down a timetable for Israeli withdrawals from West Bank rural areas that had been agreed upon by the previous Labour government. That is when Justice Minister Tzahi Hanegbi played his card: he warned Netanyahu that he would vote against any Israeli pledge to withdraw beyond Hebron. The tightrope the prime minister had been walking—between placating his

rightist supporters and keeping the peace process alive—appeared closer than ever to snapping.

Lollowing Lriedman’s attack, Netanyahu pleaded for a quick deal on Hebron, which he said would prevent such acts of violence. But those who will live tinder it—Jew and Arab alike—were far from reassured. Jewish settler David Wilder said the shooting proved that the Israeli army must stay. “There was sheer chaos in the street,” he said. “When Arafat’s people take over most of the city, thousands of Palestinians could descend in minutes and overwhelm us. The only solution is to have the Israeli army remain the sole military authority in all of Hebron.”

On the other side of the barricade, an Arab youth blamed the carnage on Palestinian leader Arafat, who has agreed to leave some of Hebron under Jewish rule. “That dog Arafat has sold out the city of Hebron,” he fumed. “The people of Hebron are Muslims. We don’t want settlers, we don’t even want peaceful Jews. We don’t want any Jews, period.” Another young man took up the theme. “This is a war between Muslims and infidels,” he shouted. “What we have to do is wipe out the Jews, then we’ll have peace.”

Disturbed by developments, Washington publicly pressed the parties to get their deal signed. Delays, said state department spokesman Nicholas Burns, were “fuelling instability and the potential for increased terrorist activity” in the Middle East. The concern for the region was understandable. On the Israel-Syria front, Washington is no longer even trying to bring those two antagonists back to the negotiating table. Syrian President Hafez Assad has long demanded the return of the strategic Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. Last week, the war of words picked up as Assad blamed “Israeli agents” for a bus bomb that killed nine people in Damascus, a charge an Israeli spokesman called “utterly ridiculous.”

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, meanwhile, has accused Netanyahu of insincerity by failing to honor his commitments in the West Bank. “It is bad,” Mubarak said of Netanyahu, “after you have discussed something to then go home to Israel and make statements that are against all that was agreed upon.” Netanyahu, however, faces an excruciating dilemma. If he appeases his peace partners and perseveres along the Oslo track, he risks alienating those who voted for his policy of security before withdrawal. If he balks, he risks the unthinkable—a slide back into outright war.

Justice Minister Hanegbi has come to personify the consequences of playing both sides of the peace/security coin. He is the son of prominent Israeli hawk Geula Cohen, who worked for the Stern Gang during its terrorist campaign for Jewish independence from British rule in the 1940s. Later, as an outspoken MP, she was evicted from the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, for shouting down her own right-wing prime minister, Menachem Begin, when he made peace with Egypt. Hanegbi, as a radical-right student activist, led violent resistance to the evacuation of Jewish settlements from the Sinai Desert under that 1979 pact.

But after his 1988 election to the Knesset, Hanegbi hitched his wagon to Netanyahu. To his mother’s dismay, Hanegbi even backed Netanyahu’s decision last summer to honor the Oslo peace agreement with the Palestinians. Now, the justice minister is threatening to cross back over to the rebel ranks. He was prepared to support a redeployment of Israeli troops from 80 per cent of Hebron, but after so much on-again, off-again diplomatic wrangling, the Netanyahu loyalist drew the line.

According to the 1993 Oslo deal, the Hebron withdrawal was to take place last March, and Israeli troops were to begin a year-long evacuation of rural villages in the West Bank last September. But the former Labour government of Shimon Peres put the Hebron pullout on hold after last winter’s suicide bombings in Israeli cities by Muslim extremists. Then, Netanyahu defeated Peres in the May election, and the process slowed to a crawl. In the latest round of Hebron talks, one of the last sticking points was Arafat’s demand that Netanyahu pick up where Peres left off and quit the West Bank villages on schedule, by next September.

WORLD

'Damned if he does and damned if he doesn't'

The longer the Hebron negotiations meandered, the more confident the rightist rebels became. “Netanyahu is losing very important elements of his constituency,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a senior fellow of the Israel Democracy Institute. “He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. In any case, the slowness and incompetence which have accompanied the whole negotiating process have already lost him moderate supporters.”

Arafat, Israeli analysts suspect, is enjoying making Netanyahu squirm. “If he can’t deliver on Hebron, the whole government falls,” said Hebrew University political scientist Gadi Wolfsfeld. But, experts warn, the more things are up in the air, the more time it allows extremists on both sides to mount attacks like last week’s Hebron shooting. “Had there been a massacre,” reflected veteran Palestinian journalist Khalid Amayreh, “even Yasser Arafat wouldn’t have been able to prevent Hamas taking revenge.”

Despite the gathering right-wing opposition, Netanyahu still looked likely to succeed in pushing a Hebron deal through his cabinet. “He is indispensable,” said Arieh Naor, a former Likud supporter who defected to Peres’s peace camp. “They cannot elect a new prime minister in his place,” explained Naor, since Netanayahu is the first leader to be directly elected by the public under a new law. But will his present team toe the line on further West Bank concessions? Before Christmas, the prime minister’s media co-ordinator flew a trial balloon. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, David Bar-Illan accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, so long as its security forces were restricted to light weapons and it was barred from alliances with hostile states like Iran and Iraq. “I want a state,” Bar-Illan said, “but I want it to be limited here and there.” In another telling remark, Bar-Illan conceded: “I don’t think Netanyahu feels that there is any chance of the whole Land of Israel [which includes the occupied territories] remaining completely under the exclusive rule of Israel.”

It looked as if a sea change was taking place on the nationalist right. But two weeks is a long time in Israeli politics. “It doesn’t look now as if Netanyahu could get further West Bank withdrawals through the coalition,” says political scientist Wolfsfeld. “He will try to give as little land as possible. But in the end he will probably have to go for a national-unity government with Labour.” Peres and other Labour leaders have been dropping strong hints that they would be open to offers. But skeptics say Netanyahu will start negotiations with Peres not to reach an agreement, but to scare his right-wing critics. “He must show them that he can do without them,” said Naor.

Where does this leave the peace? “The process must continue,” insisted senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat. “But the Israeli government must choose either to be partners with us, or to be partners with the extremists and the settlers.” It won’t be an easy choice. “Netanyahu’s loss of authority,” says Ezrahi of the Democracy Institute, “means we are bound to see a peace process which moves in wider zigzags than before. Netanyahu doesn’t have the power to stop the peace process, but he doesn’t have the power to pursue it vigorously either.” As he sat in jail last weekend, Noam Friedman had failed to destroy peace, but he had joined the ranks of the extremists who are robbing it of much of its impetus.

ERIC SILVER