Israel’s backpedaling hinders peace process

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to discuss Palestinian demands — that a sector of Jerusalem captured from them in 1967 be returned — threatens to undermine international efforts to reignite peace negotiations in the region. Talks between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization stalled after Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party unexpectedly defeated assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, in Israel’s May elections.
In interviews with the Jerusalem press last weekend, Netanyahu insisted that there was no possibility Israel would give in to Palestinian demands for independent statehood, nor would his administration consider giving Palestinians a portion of Jerusalem. Even more troubling, Netanyahu stood behind the Israel Cabinet’s decision to end a freeze — orchestrated in the 1993 Israel-PLO accords — on expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the United States, President Clinton isn’t saying much about Netanyahu’s flagrant violations of many of the peace-fostering stipulations Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat agreed to on the White House lawn in 1993. The president, nevertheless, shamelessly continues to claim credit for orchestrating the peace accords and boasts that his foreign policy savvy merits another term in office.
In response to Netanyahu’s hard-line belligerence, Arafat wisely vowed to seek international intervention. Arafat’s willingness to share Jerusalem — he proposed that it could serve as a dual capital for Israel and the Palestinians — is testimony to the sincerity of his commitment to bringing peace to the region. The PLO’s call for international pressure on Israel to consider Palestinian statehood and give up a portion of Jerusalem requires U.S. support. If Arafat isn’t successful in preventing Israel from further backpedaling on the peace accords, militant Palestinian insurgents (such as Hamas) are certain to seek independence and discourage Israeli settlers in the West Bank by more violent means.
Despite President Clinton’s obvious disappointment with Netanyahu’s victory over Peres, Netanyahu’s administration has remained unacceptably cordial. The president has yet to criticize Israel’s decision to expand settlements, even though successive administrations have properly denounced them as obstacles to peace. Clinton’s silent response to Netanyahu’s refusal to even discuss Palestinian demands, moreover, calls the president’s foreign-policy skills into question. The president’s squeamish unwillingness to upset Netanyahu doesn’t jibe with his insistence that he can play a strong role in the international community.
Washington cannot retain its credibility as both a friend of Israel and an honest broker in the peace process without supporting Palestinian requests that Netanyahu at least meet with Arafat to discuss the contentious issues. If political leaders in the international community don’t press Israel to trade some land for peaceful relations with Palestinians, the West Bank will become a combat zone. That would be a devastating betrayal of both the Israeli and Palestinian people who have worked toward creating peaceful and productive relations in the region during the last two years.