Current Israeli Palestinian stalemate hinges on matters other than Hebron

 

LATE on Tuesday night, a helicopter waited outside the Jerusalem office of the Prime Minister, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, ready to whisk him to the Israeli Gaza border to sign the Hebron peace deal with the Palestinian leader, Mr Yasser Arafat. The roads to the Erez border checkpoint had been closed off. The Israeli and Palestinian advance teams were carrying out their security checks.

In Hebron itself, locals has been out cleaning the streets. Plainclothes Palestinian security officials had cleared the illegal vendors out of a central square and neighbouring alleys. Everything was being made ready for the imminent, triumphant arrival of Mr Arafat, signalling the formal liberation from occupation of (most of) the last Israeli held Palestinian city on the West Bank.

However, Mr Netanyahu's helicopter never took off for the Erez signing ceremony on Tuesday night and Mr Arafat did not make his anticipated entrance to Hebron yesterday. To the deepening dismay of the hapless US peace talks mediator, Mr Dennis Ross, now privately threatening daily to give up and go home to Washington, yet another last minute hiccup torpedoed the completion of this elusive deal.

Infinite delay, innumerable obstacles, frequent stalemates - they are what you get when two leaders (Mr Arafat and Mr Netanyahu) who don't trust each other at all attempt to renegotiate a deal originally worked out by two leaders (Mr Arafat and Mr Rabin) who were at least trying to trust each other.

The irony of the current impasse is that it does not actually concern Hebron at all. The stakes are even higher. The Hebron deal, in all its complexity - from the clauses on the maximum height of Palestinian buildings next to Jewish settler enclaves, to the provisions on the length of the barrels on guns to be carried by Palestinian policemen - is complete and ready for signing.

The deadlock centres on what comes after Hebron, specifically Mr Arafat's demand for a new Israeli commitment to three further West Bank withdrawals. The Oslo accords provided for the last of these to be completed by next September, at which point Mr Arafat would effectively control all of the West Bank with the exception of the 140 or so Jewish settlements, access roads and "specified military locations".

The trouble is that Mr Netanyahu does not want to abide by this timetable. In the words of one of his officials yesterday, the September 1997 deadline is "out of the question".

What is Mr Netanyahu's objection? Put simply, he believes that if he completes the withdrawals on schedule, he will have given up all his bargaining power ahead of the really crucial negotiations - the talks on the final, permanent Israeli Palestinian accord, supposed to completed in May 1999. How, he wonders, can he expect to persuade Mr Arafat to sanction the expansion of Israeli sovereignty into areas of the West Bank, to encompass many of the Jewish settlements, if he has already given up control of those areas to Mr Arafat?

Instead of the September 1997 deadline, therefore, Mr Netanyahu this week proposed completing the West Bank withdrawal by March April 1999 - about the same time as the permanent deal is to be finalised. Mr Arafat, furiously indignant, refused to discuss the notion. Mr Netanyahu gave a little, suggesting May 1998 as a compromise date. Mr Arafat remained unmoved.

And there, as of last night, the talks rested - with Mr Netanyahu and Mr Arafat unwilling to budge, and Mr Ross near to tearing his hair out. The US envoy will require considerable creativity to mediate his way out of this one.

David Horovitz is managing editor of the Jerusalem Report