Land for Something

By A.M. Rosenthal

In the years of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, two labels became popular around the world -- "Peace Now" and "Land for Peace." As concepts, both failed.

"Peace Now" was a lapel button, not a plan for ending the 50-year war of Arabs against Israel. Wars do not end "now," when somebody calls a rally. They end when one side wins, or both think they will never get a better deal than the one on the table. "Land for Peace" had a nice ring to it. But the majority of Israeli and foreign Jews believed, and still do, that the Arabs would take the land and break the peace.

Now the Government of Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that as the price for transfer of any more land, Palestinians do what they have steadily been unwilling to do, or unable. That is: Fulfill promises to end the wars of hatred and terrorism against Israel and abandon the goal of the annihilation of the Israeli state.

Reciprocity, Mr. Netanyahu calls it -- step-by-step carrying out of promises, matched by step-by-step transfer of some more West Bank territory, including land linking Palestinian areas. To fit a button or headline, call it Land for Something, or Peace for Security. By now, the Palestinian movement may not even be capable of fulfilling those promises.

So much hatred, so much glorification of terrorist bombers -- as happened yesterday -- so many oaths to destroy Israel have been made, so many children taught with maps that Israel does not even exist, that the Palestinian movement may not be able to reverse itself.

To say so is not cynicism, only to state a logical possibility.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is negotiating on the premise that it is still possible Palestinians will abide by those promises, for reciprocity. The Israelis have a list of steps they want Palestinians to take: cancel the death-to-Israel covenant through official action, not Yasir Arafat's mouth; recapture and extradite terrorists released by prison revolving doors; reduce the Palestinian army from 40,000 to the agreed 25,000; punish incitement to war. Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority already is recognized by Israel as controlling the lives of more than 90 percent of Palestinians, every city on the West Bank and about 30 percent of the land. In the territory left are not population centers but security zones for which Israeli soldiers died and no Israeli government can bargain away: the hills over the Jordan protecting Israel from attack, land belts guarding Israeli water, roads essential to Israeli military mobilization.

Washington says it agrees with reciprocity, which it calls parallelism. But the U.S. can kill it by continuing to break an important promise of its own. On Jan. 17, 1997, Secretary of State Warren Christopher wrote Mr. Netanyahu reiterating U.S. policy that Israel had the right to "identify" its security arrangements. He said Israel's borders should be "directly negotiated" with its neighbors. That letter helped Mr. Netanyahu get his Cabinet's reluctant support to give up Hebron.

In practice the Clinton Administration has broken its word. It keeps sending warning signals that if it is not happy with Israeli land offers, Washington will make public its own proposals. This nicely helped freeze the talks. Palestinians are not stupid enough to budge until they see what goodies for them may be in Secretary of State Albright's bag.

She is not happy with Israel. The Arabs tell her they did not support the U.S. against Saddam at the U.N. because of their distaste for Mr. Netanyahu. Oh, come off it. The Arabs passionately supported the U.S. in 1991, when Saddam threatened their oil wells, plus necks. Israel's negotiating policy was never mentioned. Did she expect them to give her the real reason they deserted the U.S. this time: its Saddam policy was weak in head and knees?

Neither Americans nor Israelis know whether this time Palestinians will keep their promises, which always are reversible, once they get more land. But we know that for Israel what counts is not so much percentages of empty land as the hills, roads and water it needs to stay alive. If the U.S. tries to make those acre-by-acre decisions for Israel, it will fail, and so will chances of peace.
(The New York Times April 3)


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