Jewish Journal

A Historic Yes on Wye

Despite Knesset ratification of the accord, Tuesday's vote was a reminder for Netanyahu of his precarious hold on the ruling coalition

by Eric Silver

November 19, 1998 | 7:00 pm

Israel's ratification of the Wye agreement, calling for another 13-percent West Bank withdrawal in return for Palestinian security measures, was completed on Tuesday night when the Knesset endorsed the American-brokered deal by a vote of 75 to 19, with nine abstentions.

The Cabinet was meeting on Thursday to give the go-ahead for the first of three stages of implementation: a 2-percent withdrawal, transfer of 7 percent from joint control to full Palestinian rule, and the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu postponed the Cabinet session from Wednesday so that Israel could confirm that the Palestinians had honored their side of the bargain by arresting 10 suspected murderers, banning anti-Israel incitement and ordering the confiscation of illegal weapons.

Despite the overwhelming Knesset majority, Tuesday's vote was an embarrassing reminder for Netanyahu of his precarious hold on the ruling coalition of seven right-wing and religious parties. Without the support of Labor and other opposition parties, the Wye agreement would not have gone through -- and they have made it clear that their "safety net" will not stretch beyond the three months during which the redeployment is due to be completed.

Although the prime minister had defined it as a confidence vote, only eight out of 17 ministers backed the ratification. Two National Religious Party ministers -- Yitzhak Levy and Shaul Yahalom -- voted against. Seven other ministers abstained. Five of them were drawn from Netanyahu's own Likud -- Limor Livnat, Moshe Katzav, Tzachi Hanegbi, Yehoshua Matza and Silvan Shalom. The other abstainers were the former army commander Rafael Eitan (Tsomet) and Yuli Edelstein of the Russian immigrants' Yisrael Ba'Aliyah.

The NRP's seven backbenchers voted against, reasserting their role as standard-bearer of the West Bank and Gaza settlers. So did eight other coalition deputies. These included disaffected former Likud Science Minister Benny Begin and the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Uzi Landau.

The redeployment is expected to begin immediately. It will be the first time that a Likud-led government has voluntarily ceded part of the biblical Land of Israel. The Hebron withdrawal in January 1997 was inherited from Netanyahu's Labor predecessor, Shimon Peres.

Israeli commentators see Wye as the end of the road for the ideology the Likud imbibed from its nationalist mentor, Ze'ev Jabotinsky. The "no" votes by Begin and Landau represented a last stand on behalf of the Greater Israel doctrine preached by their late fathers, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his loyal lieutenant, Haim Landau.

Winding up Tuesday's debate, Netanyahu defended the redeployment as a least bad alternative. "We need a political agreement with our neighbors," he said, "to bring peace for ourselves and for our children."

But a confrontation earlier in the week between the prime minister and his Palestinian partner, Yasser Arafat, demonstrated how little trust there is between them or their peoples.

Arafat threatened again to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally in May 1999, and talked of liberating East Jerusalem with rifles raised as its capital. On the Israeli side, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon urged West Bank settlers to seize new hilltops to stop them falling into Arab hands. Only frantic American mediation persuaded Arafat to reaffirm his strategic commitment to peace and negotiation and Netanyahu to continue along the Wye road.

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