NETANYAHU FACES AN UNCHARTED ROAD

By Aaron Lerner

With the Hebron agreement behind him, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can no longer blame his decisions on the Labor-Meretz government which proceeded him. Mr. Netanyahu will have to negotiate security arrangements at border crossings, airports and seaports. He will have to figure out how to cope with "safe passages" and a raft of other items as well. And in each case, the success or failure will be his , and his alone. Because the broad strokes of the Interim Agreement leave the details of these issues wide open.

Netanyahu enters these negotiations with an important "ace in the hole" - in each case Israel has responsibility for security. If he feels that Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub's gun runners can't be trusted to run the freight operations in the airport, for example, he can insist on putting as many Israelis

and physical controls as he deems necessary in order to insure that Katyushas, SAM's and God-knows-what-else are not spirited off the tarmac. On the other hand, if the Prime Minister opts for a system which relies on the good will of the other side rather than strict controls, he will have no one to blame but himself when the trust is broken and the Jewish state faces those weapons.

Most of these issues are highly technical and it may prove difficult for the layman - or for that matter the average politician - to get a strong sense as to how adequately the arrangements reached serve Israel's security needs. Not only that: those involved in negotiating these arrangements will have every reason to present them and their implementation in the most favorable possible light. Both the Labor-Meretz and Likud governments have tended to either ignore or underplay violations up until now and there is no reason to expect this to change. Prime Minister Netanyahu, for example, went out of his way to praise Arafat for moderate elements in his Hebron speech, but avoided addressing the implications of Rajoub's decision to openly use stolen IDF assault rifles in the city on the very first day of the

redeployment. The Palestinian Authority's gun - or more accurately gun/rocket/missile/etc. - running activity is well known and discussed almost as a matter of course in articles, but official sources decline to address the issue for attribution. So until the equipment is used on a massive scale (pundits will no

doubt argue that even the best system might be excused for letting one or two SAM-7 anti-aircraft missiles slip by), Prime Minister Netanyahu may be able to cover himself even if he agrees to arrangements which ultimately prove disastrous.

But there is one issue which is considerably more clear cut than the rest. One which, more than any other, will serve to set the course of Israel's future. Hebron.

Isn't Hebron behind us? Hardly. The fight has just begun. Because the hardest issue remains open- the Tomb of the Patriarchs- a.k.a. "Al Haram Al Ibrahimi". When the Interim Agreement was signed in September '95, the two sides were unable to reach agreement on this place of worship for both Jews and Muslims and agreed to keep the status quo. They decided, however, to "review the situation" three months after the redeployment. For much of the Arab world, the presence of Jews praying in the Tomb of the Patriarchs is anathema. Jews may enter the Herodian period walls to see the mosque as tourists, but not as worshippers.

The Palestinians demand a Palestinian security presence in the Tomb of the Patriarchs and it doesn't take a military genius to realize how easily, once inside, this "security presence" could seize the building - particularly on one of the days set aside for the exclusive use of the Moslems. And once the Palestinian "police" control the structure it is hard to imagine how any Israeli government, no matter what its composition, would be either willing or able to launch an armed assault to retake it.

The issue of exclusive Jewish security control of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in order to guarantee Jewish access, puts Mr. Netanyahu's ideology to the ultimate test. It is not a security issue which can be explained to the world as relating to the safety of Tel Aviv. It can only be explained in terms of the historical and spiritual connections and rights of the Jewish People to the place. These very same arguments explain the right of the Jewish State not only to Jerusalem but, ultimately, its right to exist at all on this contested piece of property in the heart of the Arab world.

The temptation to waffle on the Tomb of the Patriarchs will be great. The "review" is to take place right before Passover and a firm Israeli position may very well lead to an atmosphere which is far from conducive to the tourist trade. A renewed intafada would also hurt Mr. Netanyahu's plans to sell 10-15 government companies this year. The decision may be a hard one, but if the Prime Minister opts to put the preservation of Israel's rights for the coming generations over short term gains, the message will be

clear.

It would be naive to claim that the world will be happy with this stance. But it is far from ecstatic with the mixed signals which Netanyahu has given until today. Those who cheer Israel only as it marches to its ultimate destruction certainly will be critical, but Israel's true friends can and must be convinced that "peace at any price" is not peace at all.

Dr. Aaron Lerner is Director IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis) POB 982 Kfar Sava)

Tel 972-9-7604719/Fax 972-9-7411645

INTERNET ADDRESS: imra@netvision.net.il

[Written on 26 January, 1997]


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