NETANYAHU'S CHOICE

By Dr. Aaron Lerner

If Netanyahu folds at Wye Plantation conference which opens today, the commission of inquiry which will no doubt be formed later to assign blame for the disaster spawned by the redeployment won't have to search hard.

"After the second redeployment a dangerous reality with be created in the territories. This will require the construction of bypass roads and the provision of a billion dollars worth of protection to the settlements and soldiers."

No, that's not one of the NRP ministers. It isn't even foreign minister Ariel Sharon. Defense Minister Mordechai, a fervent supporter of the Further Redeployment (FRD), said this at the Tuesday cabinet meeting. How much time will be available to construct Mordechai's missing bypass roads and billion dollars worth of protection for the settlements and soldiers? A year? Its more like until next week.

The entire FRD is supposed to take 12 weeks and, according to the draft of the American proposal which Ha'aretz Diplomatic Corespondent David Makovsky reported last June, Israel is to redeploy from 9.1 percent of the territory in the first two weeks of the FRD.

Mordechai's support for carrying out what he himself terms a dangerous withdrawal without the vital protection in place is tantamount to jumping from a plane and then ordering a parachute. That's not to claim that Mordechai's estimate of the efficacy of such measures is reliable. After all, he was adamant that the security provisions in the Hebron Agreement were adequate. Today the most anyone is willing to say is that it was the best deal Netanyahu could cut at the time.

Even if Clinton-Netanyahu manage to convince Arafat to honor his obligations, let there be no illusions as to how long Palestinian compliance will continue. "There is no question that there is an asymmetry between Israel's obligations which, when fulfilled, are practically in point of fact irreversible," Netanyahu recently told me, " and Palestinian obligations of which virtually all are reversible."

Once Arafat has total control of 18.3% of the territory (not to mention at least civil control over 40%) all bets are off. A unilaterally declared Palestinian state in isolated islands of 3% of the territory sounds like a joke even to the Palestinians. The FRD which Netanyahu supports would change all that. And yet, Netanyahu fails to come up with any kind of reasonable explanation for this FRD. Instead he offers excuses which, at best are an insult to our intelligence. I say "at best" because if he also believes them then we are in even worse shape. Changing 15.2% of the territory from area "B" to area "A" is just a matter of "changing the designation of an area already given to the Palestinian Authority," Netanyahu explained at the Tuesday cabinet meeting.

Really?

Israeli security forces have free reign in area "B". On occasion, Palestinian police stationed in area "B" have even been confined to barracks so as not to interfere with Israeli security operations. A far cry from the situation in Palestinian controlled area "A" , where IDF forces are effectively barred - hot pursuit or otherwise.

Why then is Netanyahu doing this? Why isn't he, as Sharon suggested, shackling himself with a cabinet decision? Not that a cabinet decision would really "shackle" the prime minister. After all, shortly after setting his government's "Basic Policy Guidelines" back on June 18, 1996, he acted to undermine the explicit formulation that predicated negotiations - let alone any action on the ground - "on the condition that the Palestinians fulfill all their commitments fully."

Netanyahu has a poll. Not one of those cheap 500 respondent polls. We're talking about a poll of thousands of adult Israelis - both Jews and Arabs. And, the prime minister explains, according to the poll he has better reelection chances if early elections result from carrying out an FRD than elections ensured as a result of not executing an FRD.

Far be it from me to claim the expertise of American political guru Arthur Finkelstein, but I do have some experience with Israeli polls. At best polls can give a reliable indicator as to how eligible voters feel and that's a far cry from how the actual voters do.

The FRD would be to national camp activists what the Kafr Kana tragedy, in which 100 Lebanese civilians were killed during Operation Grapes of Wrath, was to Arab voters in '96. Arab voters opted to punish Shimon Peres with white ballots, even though they unquestionably preferred him to Netanyahu. The activist, the engine of any election campaign, would stay home in a combination of anger, apathy and embarrassment. "If the national camp forces an election I don't know where Bibi's foot soldiers will come from," a Netanyahu insider told me this week.

"I may vote for Netanyahu - weather permitting," one activist told me, "but my son sure won't be schlepping voters to the polls with our car." "If Bibi carries out this FRD I won't stay away from the polls," an Israeli journalist from the national camp said, "I'll vote for Barak. Maybe he'll do better."

Netanyahu's projections also assume that the election issue will be war and peace when it is just as likely to focus on economics. After all, that's the only card that Gesher's David Levy has. And he will hammer away at Netanyahu's economic policies as only Levy can.

How shaky is Netanyahu's standing if he goes for the FRD? Most of the national camp Mks may very well accept his argument that they have no alternative but to sit back and tolerate the ride. But it takes only two renegades - even the Moledet Mks - to bring him down. Sure, it won't be on a vote for the FRD. There are more than enough other non confidence votes available.

But won't the Third Way bring Netanyahu down if he doesn't fold? Well, if politicians are to be are to be driven by polls, last week's Dahaf survey shows that if elections were held today the Third Way would just squeak by with two seats - down from their present four. And that's assuming there is no new centrist party. Dahaf finds that the Third Way wouldn't even get into the Knesset if a centrist party runs. Third Way Mks may complain if there's no FRD, but they aren't suicidal.

Yes, it won't be pleasant at Wye Plantation. Clinton is far from even handed. Significantly, next Thursday Clinton will be honorary dinner chair for a 500 dollar a plate American fund-raiser for Peace Now.

In the end its up to Netanyahu. The next days we will find out if Netanyahu's focus is on Israel's destiny or what Arthur Finkelstein claims are his reelection prospects. [October 14, 1998]

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Dr. Aaron Lerner is the Director IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis)
POB 982 Kfar Sava
Tel 972-9-7604719/Fax 972-9-7411645
E-Mail:
imra@netvision.net.il



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