April 2, 1998
Lonely at 50
With the peace process moribund, if not dead, foreign dignitaries are cool to Israel's 50th birthday celebration
On the eve of the 50th birthday of the Jewishstate, Israelis have seldom felt so lonely. No one wants to come tothe party. Vice President Al Gore is one of the few foreigndignitaries who have accepted an invitation to the April 30 fiesta.The rest are either stalling or saying, "Thanks, but nothanks."
Like most Israelis, the diplomats are in no moodto celebrate. The Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations aremoribund, if not actually dead. President Clinton's plodding envoy,Dennis Ross, went home this week with his tail between his legs. InWashington, State Department spokesman James Rubin said the process,launched with such high hopes in Oslo five years ago, was "in direstraits." Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was threatening towash her hands of the whole affair.
A week earlier, British Foreign Secretary RobinCook raucously warned his Israeli hosts that continued Jewishsettlement, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, was destroying thepeace process. Israelis, on the left as well as the right, wereoffended by his theatrical visit to Har Homa, where Israel plans tobuild 6,000 Jewish homes on land captured from Jordan in the 1967Six-Day War. But Cook evidently felt that the message was more urgentthan the obligations of good manners. He spoke for the 15-memberEuropean Union, of which London currently holds the rotatingpresidency. Significantly, neither his own prime minister, TonyBlair, nor the other European governments have repudiated him.
Meanwhile, in Ramallah -- Yasser Arafat'sunofficial West Bank capital -- the premature explosion last Sundaynight of a massive car bomb, apparently destined for Jewish WestJerusalem, sounded a more ominous warning of what the realalternative is. On the run-up to Passover, Jerusalem's Malchashopping mall, billed as the biggest in the Middle East, was desertedthis week. It is too tempting a target for the next Hamas suicidesquad. Families are sticking to their local supermarkets to stock upfor the holiday.
Israel's diplomatic isolation is almost total. TheAmericans are exasperated at Binyamin Netanyahu's rejection of theirproposal to hand over 13.1 percent of the West Bank to thePalestinians as a second interim installment of the Oslo accords --less than half of what Arafat was demanding. As Tommy Lapid, a robusttelevision panelist, asked: "What happens when Micronesia abandonsus?" (In recent votes in the United Nations General Assembly, theobscure Pacific archipelago and the United States were Israel's onlysupporters.) Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states to have signedpeace treaties with Israel, have consigned cooperation to the deepfreeze.
The irony, as Israeli and American commentatorshave pointed out, is that a 13.1-percent withdrawal would be atremendous victory for the right-wing Israeli coalition -- and Arafatwas signaling his readiness to grasp it as the best available offer."Palestinians," wrote Henry Siegman in the International HeraldTribune, "have been bludgeoned into going along with a proposal that,until recently, would have been seen as requiring a total Palestiniansurrender to Israel's far right."
During Ross's latest shuttle, Netanyahu haggledover fractions of percentage points, as if Israel's very life hingedon them. The government offered 9 percent, well short of theAmericans' promise to the Palestinians of a "low teens" evacuation.The prime minister insisted that each 1 percent of occupied land wasequivalent to the area of Tel Aviv. "So," quipped the skeptical Laboropposition leader and former army commander, Ehud Barak, "he's readyto give up nine Tel Avivs, but not 13."
If Barak is right and such figures do not threatenIsrael's existence, then Netanyahu is either putting the survival ofhis government before the Oslo peace, which he promised the voters hewould pursue, or he is working to demolish the process while blamingArafat for failing to keep his side of the bargain. The "Land ofIsrael Front" of 17 coalition parliamentarians threatened to bringNetanyahu down if he relinquished even 1 percent. The prime ministerwas reluctant to call their bluff, even though left-wing oppositionlegislators were preparing to spread a safety net under any advancetoward a compromise peace.
Although the Likud leader's hold on power seemsmore stable than ever before, he can hardly claim to represent anational consensus. A poll published last weekend in Yediot Aharonotlogged 75 percent of Israelis wanting to continue the Oslo process,and 62 percent ready to evacuate more than the government's 9percent.
There were hints before and during the Ross visitthat Netanyahu was putting together a more generous package. The baitfor Arafat was said to be territorial contiguity, yielding thePalestinians blocks of land that would form a more credible basis fora state (though Netanyahu would be more comfortable if they called itan "entity"). The emphasis, the spin doctors explained, would be onquality rather than quantity. But either Arafat was not forthcomingenough on Israel's security demands, or Netanyahu was looking for apretext to do nothing.
All may not be lost, however. U.N.Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a more tactful visitor than Robin Cook,told the French daily Le Figaro: "Netanyahu is pragmatic andrealistic. He will surprise the whole world for the better." PerhapsAnnan knows something we don't know.