A peace deal with a fuse attached

Netanyahu's tough stance has left him with an accord he never wanted
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Few agreements have been negotiated in such a spirit of suspicion and ill-will as prevailed during the four months it took to decide upon Israel's partial withdrawal from Hebron and the West Bank.

Even the arguments successfully used by King Hussein of Jordan last Sunday to persuade Yasser Arafat to break the stalemate in the talks, by agreeing to postpone Israeli withdrawal until the middle of next year, appealed to the deep distrust with which the Palestinian leader regards Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.

"If you're too firm, Bibi [Netanyahu] will win and there won't be a Hebron withdrawal," King Hussein reportedly told Mr Arafat in Gaza. "Even if you don't trust him, it's better to commit Netanyahu to a particular date for the further redeployment. And if Netanyahu doesn't fulfil his commitment, you will be able to raise an international hue and cry."

The fact that the agreement reached early yesterday morning is so wide- ranging, covering far more than the pull-out from Hebron, owes much to a miscalculation made by Mr Netanyahu. On becoming prime minister last June he delayed the start of the talks about Hebron and then prolonged them for months. His aim was to focus attention on Hebron and to avoid talking about more important aspects of the accord signed by the defeated Labour government in 1995 whereby the Israeli army was to withdraw in three stages from Palestinian villages.

Withdrawal from Hebron, a Palestinian city of 120,000, does not significantly alter the balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians on the West Bank. It is the seventh such town to be evacuated by the Israeli army. Experience shows that these towns can easily be isolated and economically crippled by a few Israeli checkpoints. But once Israel redeploys from the villages, where 900,000 out of 1.3 million Palestinians on the West Bank live, then Palestinian control will cease to be confined to small cantons.

In retrospect, from his point of view, Mr Netanyahu might have been better to pull out of Hebron months ago. The Labour government had signed a good deal in 1995 whereby the 400 Jewish settlers - defended by some 1,000 soldiers - would stay in 20 per cent of the city under Israeli control. Palestinians in Hebron at the time were angered by the extent of Mr Arafat's concessions. Mr Netanyahu, for all his claims of a sell-out during the election, found it difficult to improve on them.

Mr Netanyahu's strategy of focusing on Hebron was based on his belief, often repeated in his books and speeches, that the Labour government had exaggerated the political strength of Palestinians and the Arab world, unnecessarily raising their expectations of Israeli concessions. Be tough with them, he said, and they will come running. It was a thesis the new prime minister put to the test with a series of provocations, culminating in opening the tunnel in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem last September.

The result was exactly contrary to what Mr Netanyahu expected. The Palestinian cities exploded. In one day 15 Israelis and 60 Palestinians were killed. The Arab world was enraged. King Hussein, the Arab leader most sympathetic to Mr Netanyahu, went to the prison in Jordan that housed the leader of the group opposed to better relations with Israel, and personally drove him home. Last weekend, the moderate Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv said Egypt's peace treaty with Israel was close to collapse.

Mr Netanyahu first attracted attention as a young diplomat in Washington in 1983 when he wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal saying the Palestinians were not at the centre of the problems of the Middle East. Within months of taking office he found he was wrong, and he has not been able to develop an alternative strategy. After September Israel was diplomatically isolated. One Israeli commentator worked out that Israel's relations had worsened with 26 states during Mr Netanyahu's first 100 days as prime minister.

The fighting in September also delivered Mr Netanyahu into the hands of the US. He had criticised Shimon Peres, the defeated prime minister, for being too dependent on the US. But in October he attended a summit in Washington with Mr Arafat and King Hussein. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak refused to come. The Israeli leader prided himself that he made no concessions, but he did accept US mediation. Dennis Ross, the American peace envoy, was denounced by Palestinians as being pro-Israeli, but US mediation in practice strengthened the Palestinian hand.

Mr Netanyahu's political position has weakened over the last six months for other reasons. He was never liked by the Israeli establishment in the army, bureaucracy, secret services and the media. Seeing himself, not wholly wrongly, as surrounded by enemies, he worked with a small coterie of untried advisers from the far right. David Bar-Illan, one of his closest aides, provoked hostility and ridicule in the US when he denounced a New York Times columnist as an emissary of anti-Zionist opinion.

Supporters of the Oslo agreement in Israel were jubilant yesterday that with the Hebron agreement Mr Netanyahu and his party have come to a new realism about the Palestinians. It is true that they will be withdrawing from territory that they once said was given by God to the Jews. Many on the right now regard a Palestinian state as inevitable.

A problem with this optimistic view is that the accord agreed in Gaza yesterday is the outcome of the sum total of the pressures brought to bear on Mr Netanyahu rather than a new policy. While Mr Arafat expects 90 per cent of the West Bank, Mr Netanyahu has been telling his supporters that he might hand over less than half. Israeli settlers have in the past reacted to political isolation with extreme violence. Delay in Israeli withdrawal from rural parts of the West Bank gives them a full 18 months to make attacks. The peace accord contains a time bomb that has already started ticking.