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The Sunday TimesNews/Comment

16th March 1997



Har Homa: the struggle naught availeth?

Commentary by Mervyn de Silva

'There is a crisis, and crisis is becoming worse and worse", said a visibly angry Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian Authority's information minister. He had failed to reach agreement on Israeli troop deployment in his talks with Israeli Defence Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

The dispute concerns the obligations that the US-brokered agreement in January imposed on the two sides. While the Israelis argue that the extent of the withdrawal was left to Israel's "sole discretion" the Palestinians hold that the agreement, in fact, called for "the first deployment" to cover thirty percent of the areas of the West Bank still controlled by the I.D.F., the Israeli Defence Forces. In fact, the secretary-general of the Palestinian Authority, Ahmed Abdel Rahman reacted angrily when reporters asked him for his observations.

"The danger surrounding us is forcing us to decide whether to be free and masters over our land or slaves of the Israelis..."

The anger did not quite conceal the utter despair and frustration of the P.A leadership over the so-called "peace process", and its evident lack of progress.

Equally, perhaps more, interesting was the US reaction, a US that does not usually talk tough to the Israelis. The reason, conventional wisdom holds, is the pervasive influence of the "Jewish lobby" in Washington and the Jewish vote, both sources of power that few American politicians, presidents and presidential candidates included, would be naive enough to ignore.

How far this lobby can in fact influence crucial presidential decisions or policy-making in important areas, is still a matter of debate, despite the inquiries of academic pundits and the confessions of congressional old-timers. Most analysts of the US political scene recognise the fact but often conclude that the power of the Jewish lobby has been exaggerated.

Anyway, once a president wins a second term, he must surely be less vulnerable. The US constitution does not trust a politician however young for more than eight years in the White House. Whether it was this which prompted Mr. Clinton to take on Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Likud-led coalition, or some other reason, does not affect current events in Israel, unless Likud decisions and actions affect American interests in the Arab Middle-east. And it is a Muslim Middle-east, a fact that Mr. Clinton is unlikely to neglect when the American media pay so much attention to a new force called revolutionary Islam.

For all his tough talk, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not a free agent, or if he is, the Likud leader is not ready to take any risks. He would rather suffer Washington's blows than compromise on his present policy. The reason is obvious. Any "deviation", any compromise, any offer to the Palestinians would prompt the right-wing, or ultra-nationalist/Jewish extremist parties to quit the coalition. The eight-party coalition would collapse. A closer examination of the composition of the ruling alliance helps understand Prime Minister Netanyahu's dilemma.

Listen to Moshe Peled of the National Tsomet party: "I do not see myself as part of the coalition which hands over voluntarily parts of the land of Israel without having been asked to do so". His is not the only dissident voice. The coalition includes also a right-wing Front for a Greater Israel.

Its leader Michael Kleiner actually accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of betraying the fundamental tenets of Likud which were "rooted in the ideology of Greater Israel".

In short, since the fundamental principle of a negotiated settlement is "Land For Peace", Prime Minister Netanyahu was plainly violating the basic tenets of Likud that was committed to more land, greater Israel, an expansionist Israel, the Israel of Ben Gurion, and the founding fathers.

What students of the Israeli crisis should note next is how this divided opinion in the parliamentary group is reflected in the cabinet. Well at the cabinet meeting a week ago, ten ministers in the 17-member Netanyahu cabinet voted for re-deployment of Israeli troops in those areas from which the army had withdrawn.

A civil service view of the crisis in the coalition merits attention. "The cabinet is now divided between the pragmatists and the ideologists". The reference to ideologists is particularly interesting. Even the best of American commentators, even the most sympathetic or the most observant, miss the ideological dimensions of the intellectual debate in Israel.... though the debate is conducted at very high level, if you have been introduced to the right company.

In a way, it is part of the Zionist tradition, the admiration of the European (not American) intelligentsia for the Jewish Diaspora and the level of the debate it conducted in European fora for an independent Israel. Tragically, the triumphant establishment of the state of Israel, thanks to the power of Big Uncle Sam, blinded the first generation Israeli leadership, Ben Gurion to Menachem Begin, to the equally righteous cause of the Palestinian (Arab) people.

We are now witness to that struggle which Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres realised had to be stopped by making a deal with Yasser Arafat and the PLO before both were isolated by a new generation of militants, who had found the answer in revolutionary Islam. What both the Israeli leadership and the PLO did not grasp was the extraordinary phenomenon of Jewish fundamentalism, a deadly underground force that escaped even Mossad's vigilance.

By killing Rabin, the much-decorated war hero, these forces may have hoped to elect a more anti-PLO, hardline Israeli regime. All they achieved in fact was to fragment the near-50-year-old party system, and produce a Likud-led coalition far too ideologically assorted to give Israel a stable administration. In the 120 seat Knesset, the Likud-led coalition can count on 66 seats. Since the support of the small parties that take a hardline of concessions to the Palestinian Authority, concessions most of all on land, is absolutely vital, Prime Minister Netanyahu, for all his intelligence and his skill for political manoeuvre, is more or less a prisoner of the situation, the parliamentary balance produced by the last election.

He had conceded "the necessary minimum" to keep the peace process on track, the Prime Minister warned his coalition partners.

It was left to a neutral Israeli civil servant to sum up the current crisis: "The cabinet is now divided between the pragmatists and the ideologists ... and sections of the Likud are becoming increasingly bitter and frustrated about the erosion of influence over the prime minister, and the entire decision-making process...."

Har Homa

Yes, Benjamin Netan-yahu has a reputation as a headstrong, intellectually aggressive and authoritarian leader who listens to ministers, and does precisely what he regards as best for him, Likud, and government ÉÉ in that order. The arrogance and some of the other qualities were on public display on the Har Homa issue.

The plan to establish a Jewish neighbourhood will cut off the West Bank from the Arab areas. While President Clinton felt that this was "not the type of action we would believe would help build" confidence and trust, Malcolm Rifkind the British Foreign Secretary said he was "extremely disturbed" by the Likud decision.

When the project is complete south-east Jerusalem will have 6,500 new homes for Jews. The project will block the last corridor through which the east of the holy city could be linked to the West Bank, more or less P.A. territory right now. Mr. Rifkind raised a legal issue too. The Israeli plan to build homes "in occupied territory is against international law". Construction of about 2,450 homes for Jews at Har Homa will begin soon. President Arafat's response was predictable. While urging the UN Secretary General to summon the Security Council, he promptly backed a move by the Jordanian Parliament which called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League. More interesting in my view was King Hussains initiative... an emergency meeting of the Jerusalem Committee of the Organisation of the Islamic States. The distinguished Prof. Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian Minister of Higher Education, better known as an activist in women's movements, has alerted the global sisterhood.

Prime Minister Netan-yahu, a tough in-fighter faces the sort of battle he does not like. Instinctively he has threatened to "freeze the peace process".

The Palestinians demand a state (or something close to it) in their traditional homeland. Mr. Netanyahu's arrogant answer is Har Homa.

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