Leading article: The Wyes and wherefores

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN a famous or notorious phrase, Bismarck said that the great issues of the day are decided not through speeches and majority resolutions, but through blood and iron. It has too often looked as though Bismarck's harsh words applied to the tragic and intractable conflict in the Holy Land. Even now, true peace will not be decided by Friday's signing session at Wye in Maryland, but by the good faith of both sides and by courageous political leadership. Credit is due to President Clinton, who needs it badly at present. What the Wye negotiations have shown yet again is not so much the wisdom of this or any other American president, but quite simply that progress in the Arab-Israeli dispute requires the United States to twist arms. Over the past few years, it is Yasser Arafat who has grasped the implications of this, and profited by it. The essential story of the last 19 months is that the Americans desperately wanted a settlement, that Mr Arafat and the Palestinians made one threat - to declare independent statehood next year if a final settlement had not been reached by then - but that they otherwise sat back and accepted anything the Americans proposed. Yesterday Clinton rewarded them by promising to address the Palestine National Council, and thereby coming close to recognising a Palestinian state.

Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, presides over a fractious coalition and is continually obliged to placate his right wing, which he did most recently by appointing as foreign minister Ariel Sharon, the man who was responsible for the disastrous and sometimes atrocious 1982 war in Lebanon, and who hates the idea of ceding any part at all of "Judea and Samaria", otherwise the Arab-inhabited West Bank conquered by Israel in 1967. Ever since his election two and a half years ago, Mr Netanyahu has continually wriggled and changed the subject. The latest example - giving new meaning to "chutzpah" - was his last-minute demand at Wye for the Americans to release Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish American who betrayed his country.

To his particular credit, Mr Clinton refused (it seems in no uncertain terms), and said only that the United States will review that case "without any commitment". This was an oblique triumph for the Palestinians and a self-inflicted defeat for Mr Netanyahu. But the episode tended to support the view expressed some months ago by Uzi Benziman of Ha'aretz that all of Netanyahu's manoeuvring "is nothing but a tactical means of ridding himself of the burden of the Oslo process".

Perhaps Friday's agreement will disprove that. In any case, the ball remains in Mr Netanyahu's court. His task is harder precisely because, as her defenders so often remind us, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Since acquiring effective autonomy over part of the territories, Mr Arafat has shown himself almost as autocratic and brutal as some of his neighbouring Arab rulers. Whether or not he is able to prevent any terrorist outrages at all, there is nothing he would like more than to crush the Islamic extremists if he could get away with it, to the point, rich in ironies, of accepting the CIA's assistance.

For his part, Mr Netanyahu returns to Israel to face bitter opposition, from within his party, from the settlers, from the religious extremists, from the fanatics who produced the murderer of the Hebron mosque and the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin. He has undertaken to release several hundred Palestinian prisoners, to allow free passage between West Bank and Gaza, and, above all, to withdraw Israeli troops from a further 13 per cent of the West Bank. This will almost certainly split his cabinet and his parliamentary majority, and will need the support of the Labour Party.

Which might indeed be the best outcome. "Oslo" in 1993 and now "Wye" both imply a coalition of comparatively moderate forces, Israeli and Palestinian, against intransigent and violent extremists on either side. It may be that Israel cannot pursue the peace process any further under the present government, and will need once more a national unity coalition, Likud and Labour. Despite the fact that he won the personal election as prime minister in May 1996 (though by less than one per cent), it may also be that the present leader makes it impossible for Israel to pursue the process further in good faith.