Netanyahu may have misplayed US hand

There is little left to discuss with the Palestinians, writes Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
Jerusalem - Binyamin Netanyahu returned to Israel yesterday after spelling out to President Clinton the depth of the differences between the US and the new Israeli Prime Minister. He left little doubt that even if he cannot undo the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, he regards them as a mistake. "It is not the beginning of a beautiful friendship," said an Israeli newspaper.

The sharp divisions between the US and Israel are obscured because it is in the interests of neither side to publicise them. Mr Netanyahu knows Israelis like their leaders to get on with the US, and Mr Clinton does not want a quarrel with Israel that would alienate his Jewish supporters just before the presidential election.

For all his vaunted knowledge of American politics, Mr Netanyahu may have made a mistake. By underlining his differences with the White House and courting Congress, he may have permanently alienated Mr Clinton, who is a more dangerous opponent than he looks - as both George Bush and Newt Gingrich have discovered.

Even before Mr Netanyahu left for the US, hopes were waning among Israelis who supported Oslo that he would water down the hard ideological positions he had taken during the election. "I need at least three cups of coffee in the morning to believe that Bibi's tough line is tactical," said a gloomy Israeli official.

His gloom stemmed from the conviction that, for practical purposes, the peace process which started in 1993 is over. Mr Netanyahu says he will not compromise with the Palestinians on Jerusalem, Israeli settlements or Palestinian statehood. This leaves very little to discuss. Given that he also will not discuss the return of the Golan to Syria, there is little chance of negotiations with Syrian president Hafez al-Assad.

Optimists in Jerusalem think there is still room for compromise. They argue that if Israel pulls out of most of Hebron - as it is pledged to do - and revives the economy of the West Bank and Gaza by allowing Palestinian labourers to work in Israel, then a modus vivendi may be reached between Mr Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, which could last for the next four years.

The problem with this view is that it ignores the lesson of the last four years. There are so many friction points between Palestinians and Israelis that some crisis is bound to ignite.

Only yesterday, Jewish settlers said they planned to triple their numbers under Mr Netanyahu, an intention decried by Palestinians as a catastrophe in the making.

Hasan Asfour, director of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's peace negotiating office, responded: "I do not think the Palestinian people will stand handcuffed before this settlement assault."

Whatever the relative intentions of the Israelis and Palestinians, their relations are determined largely by bombings, assassinations, small wars, or what in Northern Ireland is called "the politics of the last atrocity". If there is no momentum towards peace, then the two sides move inevitably towards confrontation.

The likelihood of crisis will be exacerbated by Mr Netanyahu's style of government. Negotiations with the Palestinians were previously handled by the foreign ministry, with hundreds of experienced officials. But Mr Netanyahu prefers everything to go through his own hands and a small and inexperienced kitchen cabinet. He distrusts civil service officials and army officers active in implementing and negotiating Oslo. This makes it much more difficult to defuse any unexpected crisis.

Nowhere is Mr Netanyahu's inexperience more in evidence than in dealing with Syria. His staff have spoken of "Lebanon First", meaning an agreement for Israel to leave southern Lebanon. But having caught Israel in a lobster pot in Lebanon, President Assad has no reason to let Mr Netanyahu escape.

The second, and more carefully pondered, string to Israeli policy in Lebanon is to retaliate for Hizbollah guerrilla attacks with air or artillery strikes against the Syrian army. But as Professor Moshe Ma'oz, a specialist on Syria at the Hebrew University, points out: "President Assad is extremely tough. Syria is good at this type of attritional warfare."

Mr Netanyahu won the election by promising Israelis better personal security in the wake of the four suicide bombs in February and March, which killed 63 people in Israel. The irony of his present policy is that he can only make good on this promise if he co-operates with Syria and the Palestinians. Israeli security alone cannot stop the bombers.