Middle East: Netanyahu refuses to give up the West Bank

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Benjamin Netanyahu will make clear at his meeting with President Clinton next week that he has no intention of withdrawing from most of the West Bank. Yasser Arafat, who meets Mr Clinton two days later, hopes the US will finally put pressure on Israel. Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem reports on the likely outcome of the confrontations.

In the run up to his meeting with President Bill Clinton next week, Mr Netanyahu is already leaving the American leader in no doubt that Israel has no intention of implementing the Oslo accords of 1993 whereby it would withdraw from most of the West Bank and Gaza. This week the Cabinet approved a map of Israeli interests which will leave it holding at least 60 per cent of the West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu is not trying to pull the wool over President Clinton's eyes. The White House knows that the Israeli Prime Minister believes Israel is strong enough, politically and militarily, not to give land for peace - the basis for any Israeli-Palestinian agreement since the war of 1967. In effect Mr Netanyahu, unlike the previous government, is ruling out Palestinian self-determination.

Can he get away with it? Mr Netanyahu is no mean judge of politics in the US, where he began his career as an Israeli diplomat in Washington and New York. His itinerary over the next week shows how he intends to put pressure on President Clinton before the US puts pressure on him. His first appointment is with Newt Gingrich, the right-wing Republican Speaker of the House, known to sympathise with his views. Then he speaks to thousands of Christian fundamentalists who advocate extreme Zionism and, despite a crowded schedule, will find time to be interviewed on television by the preacher Pat Roberston.

The majority of American Jews say they support Oslo and want pressure on Mr Netanyahu to implement it. But the Jewish community activists are on the right and so are the campaign funds. Mr Clinton seems to have drawn the conclusion from his 1992 defeat of President Bush, who held back funds to stop Israel building settlements on the West Bank, that it is always unwise, in terms of domestic American politics, to seek a confrontation with an Israeli government.

One development might change this. Gassan Khatib, a Palestinian commentator, argues that "the US will only put pressure on Israel if it believes that the failure of the peace process with the Palestinians is damaging the American predominance in the Middle East as a whole. There were signs of this happening in November and December when the US could not rally its Gulf war coalition against Iraq or prevent Iran hosting a conference of Islamic leaders in Tehran."

Other than this Mr Arafat does not have too many cards to play when he sees Mr Clinton on 22 January. "We will simply ask for the existing agreements signed by Israel since 1993 to be implemented," said Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian Minister of Planning, yesterday. There is no doubt about what these accords said. The Palestinians can make some good rhetorical points about their implementation. Mr Shaath says: "Even after a military coup in the Third World the first announcement is usually that the new leaders will abide by previous agreements."

Mr Arafat is not responsible for the disparity in power between Israel and the Palestinians. "If, God forbid, there is a failure in this peace process, then all options are open," he said yesterday in Amman. But he knows his options are few. Oslo was in large part a result of the pressure on Israel by the intifada of the 2.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank after 1987. Mr Arafat had little to do with it and there is no sign of a renewed uprising.

Since he returned from Tunisia in 1994, Mr Arafat has marginalised the local leadership and rules largely through his security police. He ignores the Palestinian parliament. He shows little interest in the 3.5 million- strong Palestinian diaspora where he was once based. Mr Khatib says that, in practice, Mr Arafat's Palestinians Authority will not allow any civil resistance to Israel because "this would threaten their narrow interests and the privileges granted them by Israel".

Both the US and the Palestinians hope that Mr Netanyahu's government will split between supporters and opponents of Oslo. This may happen. But the Israeli leader is adept at delaying tactics. He knows also that Washington does not want a confrontation. The opposition Labour party is weak. Some 30,000 opponents of Oslo gathered this week in the square where Yitzhak Rabin, then prime minister, was assassinated in 1995. "The people of Israel live," shouted one of their leaders. "Oslo is dead."