From the Desk of Harvey Sicherman

July 31, 1997

Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102-3684 For membership information, call 215-732-3774, ext. 105.

Dr. Harvey Sicherman is the president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and the author of Palestinian Autonomy, Self-Government, & Peace (Westview Press, 1993). He has served three Secretaries of State.


The Jerusalem bombing is another bloody round in the test of strength between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasir Arafat that began over a year ago. Since then both men have struggled to control the peace diplomacy. And until recently, Arafat had been gaining the upper hand. But the carnage in the Mahane Yehuda market ends over a month of bad news for Palestinian leader, putting him in a very spot.

Benjamin Netanyahu was elected by an Israeli public supportive of the Oslo Accords but increasingly unsure whether Yasir Arafat was doing his best to control terrorism. The Israeli leader's mandate might be summarized as "demand more, give less." But after isolating and demeaning Arafat in the summer of 1996, Netanyahu did not engage the Palestinian leader seriously, especially on the unresolved issue of the Hebron withdrawal. He appeared to "demand more and give nothing." The ire of the world therefore fell upon the Israeli Prime Minister when Arafat used the Jerusalem tunnel opening in September to stimulate riots, punctuated by Palestinian police fire that killed Israeli soldiers. Summoned by an alarmed President Clinton to the White House, Netanyahu evaded American pressure by suddenly embracing Arafat. The result could only have convinced the Palestinians that violence paid off and that the United States could be helpful in putting Israel into a corner. Round one: Arafat.

The second was the Hebron negotiation which took much longer than expected and required enormous effort by American negotiator Dennis Ross to arrange. Mutual mistrust was reflected in both the final agreement and the American side letters of reassurance to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu boasted that the compliance issue-- Arafat's failure to abide by important security and political provisions of the Oslo Accords--had been put on the agenda. But Arafat did get Israel's withdrawal from most of Hebron and, significantly, an American pledge to facilitate the diplomacy. Round two: draw.

Round three commenced when Netanyahu authorized the building of a large neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem, which, if completed, would ring the city with Israelis. This move and the first of three Israeli withdrawals that gave the Palestinians much less territory than they expected, were clearly the products of Netanyahu's fractious coalition Cabinet, some of whom opposed any dealings with Arafat. An angry Arafat promptly turned on violence and demanded action from Washington. He also released important members of the Hamas terrorist group from jail and stopped the extensive cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security services. Thus by mid-May 1997 Arafat had emerged from the contest in a much stronger position than a year earlier. He benefitted from Israel's growing isolation,

enjoying greater Arab support than at any time since he picked the wrong side in the Gulf War. Arafat had used violence in dramatic violation of the Oslo Accords yet still put Netanyahu on the political defensive.

The key to successful brinksmanship, however, is to know when to stop. Here the Palestinian leader seems to have overreached. He apparently did not intend to resume negotiations with Israel except under his terms alone: a freezing of all settlements; deep withdrawals; and only later final status negotiations with full American "participation," meaning full American pressure on Israel to give him a Palestinian state. By contrast, Netanyahu, who seemed in danger of losing power over coalition disaffection with his leadership, could only propose a leap forward to accelerated final status talks. His lure? Hints that he, too, might accept a very limited Palestinian sovereignty.

Had Arafat decided even in late June to resume cooperation and negotiation with Netanyahu he would have begun the next round with a high hand. But he waited and his situation soured. The last six weeks have seen: the arrest and release under pressure of a Palestinian-American journalist; revelations of enormous corruption and mismanagement; widespread condemnation of the Palestinian Authority's death penalty for Arabs selling land to Jews; and several murders of alleged land dealers. Then Israel uncovered a terrorist cell in Arafat's own police, linked to a high ranking officer.

All of this together turned a sharp light on Arafat's lack of compliance with his commitments under the Oslo Accords. The bombing came just as the Palestinian leader, recognizing the adverse turn of events, indicated his desire to resume negotiations with Israel. This terrible act, however, will enable Netanyahu to take the offensive for the first time in a year. He will be able to insist, with American and international support, that Arafat take decisive action against Palestinian terrorists even at the risk of civil war. Otherwise, the peace process cannot continue.


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Foreign Policy Research Institute, 1528 Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102-3684 For membership information, call 215-732-3774, ext. 105.