The peace process -- R.I.P. ?

The opening shots have been fired against Netanyahu's new Middle East order

By Jonathan Broder
Published September 25, 1996 11:15AM (EDT)

for the first time since the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn three years ago, Israeli and Palestinian forces have come to fatal blows. At least four Palestinians were reportedly shot dead and 300 wounded in today's gunbattles in the West Bank, and there are fears that a coup de grace has been administered to the faltering peace process.

The immediate cause of the violence was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's order to open an archeological tunnel yesterday alongside Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, the third
holiest site in Islam. A similar plan to open a tunnel in 1988 was abandoned after violent Palestinian protests, yet the Netanyahu government -- despite the rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians -- opted to proceed anyway.

The dispute, and the Israeli government's actions, are only the latest in a series of missteps that have thwarted the Mideast peace process since Netanyahu took power at the head of a right-wing religious coalition in May. At the time, many analysts predicted that Netanyahu's hard line toward major elements of the peace process would backfire. Today, those suspicions have been amply confirmed.

Under U.S. pressure, Netanyahu did, despite earlier refusals, meet recently with Arafat. But he has resisted American calls to follow up the meeting with concrete moves to further peace. Despite an agreement by the previous Labor government to withdraw Israeli troops from most of the West Bank city of Hebron, Netanyahu has refused to proceed with the pullback unless the Palestinians agree to renegotiate the terms of the agreement for the sake of 400 Jewish settlers who are living behind barbed wire in the midst of 120,000 Palestinians.

Netanyahu has resumed settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and has stiffly opposed the presence of any Palestinian offices in Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital. After Arafat agreed to curtail PLO activities there, Israeli authorities responded by bulldozing a Palestinian clinic for the disabled in the city, because they said it was built without a permit.

On the Syrian front, Netanyahu has reversed former Prime Minister Shimon Peres' willingness to trade Golan Heights territory for peace, bringing all negotiations to a halt. Meanwhile, fighting between Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah guerillas in southern Lebanon has escalated, as has Israel's war of words with other Arab neighbors. Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa reportedly told the Egyptian press agency that Netanyahu's focus on Israeli security, at the expense of other aspects of the peace process, "requires psychiatric intervention." Israel has protested his remarks.

With an election fast approaching, the U.S. administration has been reluctant to talk about the deteriorating situation, but White House officials are known to be despondent about the prospects for diplomacy since Netanyahu took office. Their confidence plummeted further after the Israeli leader's recent meeting in Washington with Defense Secretary William Perry, in which, according to a participant at the meeting, Netanyahu claimed that Iraq was on the verge of obtaining a nuclear weapons capacity. The U.S., which closely monitors Iraq's weapons programs, possessed no such evidence -- a finding confirmed by Perry when he checked further. Netanyahu's claim "raises serious questions about the Prime Minister's credibility and judgement," said the participant, who insisted on anonymity.

Other analysts seeking an insight into Netanyahu's thinking point to a study published earlier this year by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, a right wing Jerusalem think-tank with an office in Washington. Titled "A Clean Break," the study, put together by Richard Perle, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, calls for replacing the idea of land for peace with "peace for peace," a formulation that Netanyahu has favored. Rather than the carrot of land, this strategy would focus on Israel's overwhelming military strength as the potential stick to persuade the Arabs to accept a much narrower peace.

The Arabs, however, may choose another option -- violence. If the gunfire in the West Bank today is any indication, the Arab response to Netanyahu's new Middle East order may have already begun.

Quote of the day

Jaw-jaw, better than war-war

"He's the master, even though he's the most bashed individual in the history of talk radio.
In the darkest hours of his relationship with talk radio, Clinton invited me to the White House for an interview. Then he personally gave me a tour of the place for an hour -- it's not
because I'm a charming guy."

-- Michael Harrison, a talk radio host and publisher of the trade magazine "Talkers" magazine, on President Clinton's understanding of the influence of talk radio. (From "From Talk Radio, a Chiding For Dole" in Wednesday's
New York Times)

Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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