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THE ROAD FROM HEBRON
Benjamin Netanyahu's Subtle, Tenuous Achievement




I


Yasser Arafat has now sold Israel the same rug a fourth time. In the Hebron agreements just signed with the Likud government of Israel, he has promised to change -- really, truly change this time -- the Palestine National Charter that calls for the destruction of Israel. The chronicle of this multiple sale -- a near-farcical tale of sleight of hand and gullibility -- is a microcosm of the Middle East peace process.


In September 1993, Arafat promised in a letter that was part of the original Oslo accords to change the charter. He didn't.


In the Oslo II accords of 1995 in which Israel took upon itself withdrawal from all the cities of the West Bank, he promised it again. He then did nothing.


In the run-up to the Israeli elections of May 1996, when Shimon Peres desperately needed to show Israelis that they had gotten something more for Oslo than blown-up buses, Arafat convened the Palestine National Council and got it to pass a resolution that the world hailed as a momentous change of the charter. A deluded (I prefer this adjective to the alternative, which is " cynical") Peres called it "the most important ideological change in this century."


It was, of course, nothing of the sort. In fact, it was nothing more than a restatement of Arafat's original pledge in his 1993 letter to change the charter in the future -- but without actually changing it. A committee was set up to report back with the changes in six months. The six months were up October 24, 1996. Silence.


And now, sale Number 4. With the Hebron accords, the "Note for the Record" drawn up by U.S. special Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross lists changing the charter as one of the commitments the Palestinians will be required to carry out under the Hebron Protocol.


That American document sets out three other items that the Palestinians have not carried out that they are now required to: extradition of terrorists and dismantling of the terrorist apparatus; reduction of their armed forces to the 18,000 agreed to in Oslo (they now have about 40,000 soldiers); and dismantling of offices outside of their territory (meaning their illegal offices in Jerusalem).


Is this not simply more of the same? Netanyahu campaigned on the promise not to destroy Oslo but to make it truly reciprocal. He promised to get something in return for Israel's myriad concessions. With Hebron, he may claim that he got reciprocity. But in fact what he got is yet another promise of reciprocity. Was Netanyahu, like his much-scorned predecessors, simply taken in? What did he really get?

 

II


In writing about the Israeli election in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, I suggested that, since reciprocity was the cornerstone of Netanyahu's peace platform, he might start by offering to fulfill the Hebron withdrawal in return for, say, a changed Palestinian charter. This would have been true reciprocity: a real move by the Palestinians in return for a real move by the Israelis.


For the first months of his administration, Netanyahu was indeed looking for something of the kind. He began by going slow on Hebron, trying to see what he could get in return. But this policy proved impossible for a simple reason: World reaction to Netanyahu's election was such that he could make no demands. Condemned as an unreconstructed nationalist -- and worse, as usurper of the slain Rabin -- he was on trial. Any demand he would make of Arafat would be seen as an act of bad faith, a tactic to destroy Oslo on the pretext of reciprocity.


Arafat charged that Netanyahu's go-slow strategy on Hebron betrayed Netanyahu's true feelings about (i.e., rejection of) Oslo -- and the world agreed. The Jerusalem tunnel riots sealed the fate of Netanyahu's go-slow policy: After first justifying their violence on the grounds of Israeli violation of Islamic holy places, the Palestinians (faced with the fact that there was no such violation) quickly changed tack and admitted that their real grievance was Netanyahu's stalling on Oslo. When the world -- and, crucially, the U.S. government-seemed tacitly to accept this as a legitimate justification for a mini-war, the conclusion was clear: Netanyahu's drive to begin his administration by demanding reciprocity could not continue.


Before he would be in a position to demand, let alone collect, anything, Netanyahu had first to sign onto the dotted line of Oslo. That he did with the Hebron Protocol.


And that is the meaning of Hebron: Reciprocity starts now, if it is to start at all.

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