THE long, tough negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over Hebron seem to be coming to an end—but Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's problems have just begun. As the prospect of handing over Hebron to the Palestinians, as per the Oslo peace agreement, draws closer, Netanyahu faces increasing dissent from hardliners within his own government as well as Jewish settlers, who were partly responsible for his election.
But more importantly, the Netanyahu government faces its gravest danger in the form of mistrust between his regime and the security establishment. This is not to say that a sensational coup d'etat is on the anvil, but the government's image among the electorate at large could be irrevocably damaged. For, Netanyahu's electoral ticket to the chair of prime minister was his emphasis on security.
On December 24, Netanyahu and the Palestinian National Authority chief, Yasser Arafat, met for four hours at the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. They were accompanied by the US envoy for West Asia, Dennis Ross, who later claimed the talks were "very thorough" and that a formal pact could be expected soon. Negotiators from both sides expressed similar optimism. "We have reached an accord in principle on the main issues, but we have to formalise them, which will take some time," said the Israeli delegation's spokesperson, Moshe Vogel.
Hebron, the last West Bank town under Israeli occupation, is home to about 400 hardline settlers, who live in enclaves surrounded by over 120,000 Palestinians. As per the 1995 Oslo accord, Hebron was supposed to have been handed over to the Palestinians in March 1996. The US initiated intensive attempts in October to forge a final deal on the city after a wave of fierce clashes between settlers, security forces and the Palestinians left at least 86 dead.
The points of difference in the newly negotiated accord compared to the earlier one signed by the former Israeli government of Shimon Peres include a buffer zone between the Jewish settlements and the Palestinian majority areas in Hebron. Israel is also seeking to incorporate its right to 'hot pursuit' into Palestinian parts of town in case of attacks on Jews. Lastly, the size of weapons wielded by Palestinian forces could be restricted.
But given the uncompromising popular mood in the country, a smooth transition seems unlikely. Netanyahu's dilemma can be gauged from a story doing the rounds. At one of the endless meetings that preceded the Netanyahu-Arafat 'summit', the Israeli delegates presented a request that astonished the Palestinians: while signing the agreement, please make it seem as if you have conceded to our demands; while actually the agreement would suit your demands better. "What we need is only to prove to our voters that we reached a better agreement on Hebron than the Labor government," said an Israeli negotiator.
As a matter of fact, this strange Israeli appeal to the Palestinians reflects the Likud government's predicament. On the one hand, Netanyahu needs to take into account Israel's strategic realities and requirements. On the other, he must satisfy his core supporters, most of whom are settlers. And so, the prime minister must either submit himself to the peace process—in which case he risks the loyalty of the settlers—or he must surrender to the settlers' demands, thereby throwing away all Israel has achieved in the peace process. The latter would mean jeopardising the nascent relations with Arab states, Asian nations like India and even the US.
Which is probably why in the negotiations, Netanyahu has been trying his hardest to buy time. All in the endeavour to give the Palestinians what they wanted, but at the same time to prove to the settlers that he has stuck to the promises he made during the election campaign.
However, with the Palestinians not sufficiently accommodating, Netanyahu is at a loose end and remains indecisive over the settlement activity. The Americans approved the need to pave new roads in the West Bank in order to enable the redeployment of the Israeli Army. But Netanyahu has not approved any of the plans to build houses to enlarge existing settlements, with the exception of settlements of Ultra Orthodox Jews on the old border between Israel and the West Bank (an area the Palestinians already agreed to exchange with regions inside Israel to enlarge the Gaza Strip). But Netanyahu is aware that he must con -tinue with the impression that settlements will be enlarged if he is to retain his votebank.
It is this issue that could unravel the gains made so far. As Muhammad Hurani, a Fatah leader in Hebron, told Outlook: "If the agreement on Hebron means enlargement of settlements, we would prefer not to have any agreement at all."
THIS is also making for a confrontation with the security establishment. Israeli security chief Ami Ayalon warned Netanyahu: "If you enlarge settlements, you start the countdown to major confrontation with the Palestinians similar to the one that took place last September." "It is not your damn business," replied Netanyahu. "I am ready to hear your professional reports, but I make the policy."
This is not the first time that the Israeli prime minister and the heads of security organisations have disagreed. The legendary Issar Harel had many a quarrel with Ben Gurion, but in their case the differences became public knowledge years later.
Netanyahu's mistrust of the security bosses stems from his deep conviction that they are still loyal to the former Labor government. Uzi Landau, one of Netanyahu's confidants who heads the Security and Foreign Relations Committee in the Israeli parliament, declared openly: "The heads of the Israeli army are addicted to the Oslo agreements." His implication was that they do not serve the new government.
Meanwhile, Israeli Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon launched a vicious attack on the proposed pact soon after the meeting between Arafat and Netanyahu. "After learning the details of the accord, I am even more worried than in the past," he said on state television. "I will not be able to forgive such a blow to the Jewish inhabitants of Hebron."
For their part, the settlers in Hebron are desperate, a very dangerous state of mind for those considered to be the most fanatical in Israeli society. The starkest reminder of this simmering discontent is the fact that Igal Amir, Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, finalised his murder plans in the Kiryat Arab settlement, which is adjacent to Hebron.