WILL HEBRON "'go", or won't it? We have watched anxiously as this question has eaten away at Israelis night and day since talks with the PLO resumed on October 6. Meeting after meeting led the media to predict time and again the imminence of Israel's redeployment from the oldest Jewish city. Much of the forecasting smacked of media attempts to set the agenda and thereby increase pressure on Israel to redeploy, but it also did at times appear as if Prime Minister Netanyahu badly wanted to get the Hebron handover out of the way.

As talks dragged on, Israel insisted progress was being made; Arafat insisted it wasn't. Israel accused the PLO leader of trying to increase Arab discontent and trigger violence. Arafat denied this, then roused his people with the words: "'Are there no stones left in Hebron?" (see page 2).

The US State Department's Dennis Ross spent weeks here trying to drive the Hebron agreement through. At one point he declared he was leaving for home, only to turn around at Ben Gurion Airport and wade back in again. After this, the press reported that he would probably remain until a deal was closed.

On October 27 the media predicted a meeting between Netanyahu and Arafat could occur that day. President Clinton called both men, urging them to finish things. Instead, Arafat left on a European tour, and Ross finally went home. Shortly thereafter the US put forward "'bridging proposals" to clinch the agreement, but to no avail. The talks were stalemated, griped the PLO.

Immediately after Clinton's reelection, he called on Israel and the PLO to get done with the Hebron deal. Meanwhile French President Jacques Chirac toured the region fronting an (unsuccessful) European attempt to muscle in on the talks on the side of the Arabs. (Chirac's anti-Israel animus was exposed before the world when he railed child-like against the security detail assigned to protect him in Jerusalem's Old City.)

Sensing blood, the EU Troika, led by Ireland's Dick Spring, came next. They refused to visit Israel "'proper" - because Israel would not allow them to support the Arab claim to Jerusalem by visiting the PLO's Orient House - but stood alongside Arafat in Gaza, heard his plea for Europe to pressure Israel into giving way on Hebron, and promptly announced that this is precisely what the EU would do.

Arafat then demanded that Netanyahu assure him of his intention to keep all the Oslo Accords. The prime minister telephoned Arafat with this promise, but still the breakthrough did not come. On November 11, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai announced the Hebron agreement could be signed in days. The next day, Foreign Minister David Levy said it could be hours.

All the while, Israelis by the tens of thousands poured into Hebron from around the country, and abroad, to support the Jews there. Thousands braved pouring rains in Jerusalem to demonstrate their opposition to the IDF redeployment, and in an effort to strengthen Netanyahu's hand.

Right wing groups who had backed Netanyahu's election were growing increasingly angry, even as they tried to rationalise his decisions. Some suggested he was stalling in the hope that something would happen to scuttle the talks altogether.

But then, as Nadia Matar of the Israeli protest movement Women in Green pointed out, if the premier was looking for a cause to stop "'Oslo", what better reason than the killing of Israelis by PLO "'police" using Israeli-issued rifles, and this in front of the television cameras of the world?

That outrageous breach of the accords, more than anything before, showed just how ready Arafat and his men are to "'return" tothe language of the gun. Nothing suggests that this murderous instinct will lessen once Hebron is in their hands.

So, what will be? It's clear Arab demands will not stop after Hebron - not even if, God forbid, Jews there are uprooted, their homes and places of worship given to the Muslims.

It would appear that, from Netanyahu's point of view - bearing in mind his undertaking to honour all the agreements contained in the Oslo Accords - he does not believe he has any choice on Hebron, and so is doing his best to ensure the security of the city's Jews. Or perhaps he is resigned to the reality that violence is going to bring down all of Oslo eventually, and hopes to ensure Israel is not blamed for the collapse when it comes.

Regarding his mantra that Israel expects reciprocity from the PLO before advancing any further, Netanyahu advisor David Bar-Ilan, said on November 11: "'We expect reciprocity after Hebron. Hebron is pending since March, so it is a different case."

And asked whether Israel has any strategy for responding to a major failure of the agreement in Hebron, Bar-Ilan said, "'Yes, we have plans."

If Hebron does go, it will be the last major urban area commited under "'Oslo". Redeployment is then set to occur in some of the rural areas, ultimately bringing a major chunk of Judea-Samaria under the PLO. The interim agreements will have been met.

Thereafter, Israel and the PLO must sit down to begin final status negotiations. At that point, Netanyahu will be able to proceed with his hands no longer tied by the previous government's commitments.

And central to negotiations, then, will be Jerusalem.

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