Promises, Broken and Kept:

Eighty-One U.S. Senators Finally Face the Truth about the Middle East

By Mortimer B. Zuckerman

Israel's peacekeeping Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin died with the bitter knowledge that he had been betrayed. At Oslo, Yasser Arafat had given him a commitment: "You give us territory, and we'll fight terrorism from that territory." Rabin took the historic chance. He also took the precaution of asking two outstanding professionals to report on Arafat's fulfillment of the promise: Gen. Amnon Shahak, as chief of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF); and Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, head of military intelligence.

Knowing what happened is essential to knowing where we are today. In September 1995, Ya'alon reported that instead of fighting the armed fundamentalist terrorists--Hamas and Islamic Jihad--Arafat was permitting their military strength to grow in the territories turned over by Israel. Other Arab leaders, from Egypt to Algeria, were fighting the fundamentalists because they recognized their menace. But Arafat, Ya'alon concluded, was using proxy terror to push Israel for more concessions. When Ya'alon advised Rabin that Arafat was dealing with Mohamed Def, one of the most radical terrorists, Rabin confronted Arafat with the allegation. Arafat's response was to say, "Mohamed esh?" ("Mohamed who?"). It was, Rabin judged, a brazen deception. Soon afterward, with more damning intelligence in his hands, Rabin decided on a showdown with Arafat--but planned to wait until the Palestinian election on Jan. 20, 1996, in hope that a political endorsement would strengthen Arafat's hand against the terrorists.

Paralysis. Rabin died before he could carry out his plan. Four days after the Palestinian election, the new prime minister, Shimon Peres, visited Arafat. Israeli intelligence had learned that a terrorist group was planning five major bombings. Arafat was given that information--and did nothing. In February and March, four bombs exploded in buses, cafes, and shopping areas, killing dozens of Israelis and wounding hundreds. The impact on Israeli politics was devastating, leading to the election of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as the expression of Israel's security concerns.

The rise of Netanyahu did not bring about the paralysis of Oslo. It was the paralysis of Oslo that brought about the rise of Netanyahu.

Arafat mourned Rabin's death, but he continues his double game. Last year, some 463 terrorist attacks were mounted; an additional 100 were foiled. Recently, Israel discovered a Hamas cell that planned the takeover of a major building; the planting of mines; a suicide bombing in a major residential area; car bombings in Haifa, Beit El, and Ariel; and infiltration of explosives into videotapes. Only intense Israeli pressure induced the Palestinian Authority (PA) to raid this group: 1,500 pounds of explosives were found. Meanwhile evidence of Arafat's betrayal multiplies. He has twice as many police under arms as agreed at Oslo but will not use them against terrorist havens minutes from major Israeli cities. He has freed Islamic Jihad terrorists responsible for the January 1995 Beit Lid bombing that killed a score of Israelis, as well as those who attacked the Jerusalem mall last September. He retains the chief of the 12,000-strong police force in Gaza and the West Bank, Gen. Ghazi Jabali, who is known to be involved in terrorism. He allows PLO leaders to exhort their people to violence against Israelis. He has recruited 150 police officers from known terrorist groups, including at least 25 wanted for terrorist attacks on Israelis. A cartoon sums up Arafat's definition of cracking down on terrorism: "No kiss. All you get is a hug."

Does Arafat get criticized in the Western media for this appalling record? Of course not. All kinds of rationalizations are devised to excuse his abrogation of security commitments, which were underwritten in the Oslo "Note for the Record" by the United States itself. All sorts of pressures are brought on Israel to reward Arafat's campaign by making further concessions. Israel knows full well that this would not buy peace.

Withdrawal from Hebron has been followed by suicide bombings, more violent intifada--and demands for more withdrawals, more retreat from Oslo.

That is the bad news. The good news is that, despite the one-eyed vision of the media, an impressive body of U.S. senators has finally broken the spell. Eighty-one senators--who cannot be dismissed as partisan--have sent a letter to President Clinton containing the following truths: "The fact is that many Palestinians continue to use terror and violence as a political tool against Israel. Chairman Arafat, himself, repeatedly threatens renewals of widespread violence and continues to withhold full security cooperation with Israel." The senators point out the injustice of pressuring Israel. It would be "particularly unfair and counterproductive since Israel has kept the promises it made at Oslo, and today is prepared to withdraw from even more territory of the West Bank before final status negotiations." Then they assert: "On the other hand, the Palestinians have not provided Israel with adequate security." They conclude: "Presenting an American plan--especially one that includes a specific redeployment figure beyond what Israel believes to be in its national-security interest before final status arrangements--runs counter to [former Secretary of State Warren] Christopher's commitment and can only undermine Israel's confidence."

Unfortunately, the State Department has become Arafat's de facto advocate, pressuring Israel to pull out from more of the West Bank. This is unwise as well as unfair. In the light of the broken promises, and the need to retain some bargaining chips for the final negotiations, Israel has been remarkably forthcoming, especially since those same Rabin-appointed, nonpolitical military advisers still make the same assessment of Arafat's failure on security policy that they did in 1995. Israel has offered more land, but the Clinton administration seems to miss the point, as it tries to increase the percentage yielded. The argument should not be about how much extra land Israel yields but how every bit of land given up undermines Israel's fundamental security. Israel is constrained by the imperative of survival--survival against not just the treacherous Arafat but also the radical Islamic government that might well succeed him. Every 1 percent in this argument is an area the size of Tel Aviv; every decimal point is a multiplier of risk.

For instance: Israel cannot give up mountain ridges on the West Bank without losing early-warning sites of Iraqi or Syrian attack. It cannot give up the vital underground aquifers that provide a huge share of Israel's fresh water. It cannot do without a buffer zone against Arab infiltration along the so-called Green Line, Israel's pre-1967 border. It must have a means of swiftly deploying into t he Jordan Valley by means of four east-west roads that enable the IDF to bypass Palestinian communities and local traffic. It must have a Jerusalem defense zone to protect its capital, and it must have a security zone to protect passenger planes landing in the Ben Gurion Airport: The Palestinians have been trying to acquire shoulder-to-air missiles.

Tin ear. The backdrop of the chill between Washington and Jerusalem is antipathy toward Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Beyond the gap of perception between what Israel knows it needs for its security and what America thinks it needs to appease Arafat, there is an ominous breakdown of trust. Given his remarkable early political success in Israel, Netanyahu has demonstrated an amazing tin ear for the politics of the situation. He seems not to realize the importance of inspiring trust in the people he must work with. His political foul-ups have diverted attention from Palestinian failures on security.

This has allowed the United States to convince itself it needs to beat up only on the awkward partner--on Netanyahu--when it should be leaning on Ara fat to tighten security, the key to the whole confrontation. While Netanyahu is politically inept, he is strategically dead right--and right to reject American pressure. The record shows the Israelis right in their judgment that a progressive turnover of territory to the PA would be no more than a series of unilateral concessions. They would whet the appetites of the Palestinians and raise their expectations without bringing about any genuine PLO acceptance of the Jewish state, any elimination of terrorism.

Why does Washington see Israel's reasonable demand for reciprocity as some form of sabotage of the peace process? Reciprocal obligation was the very foundation of the whole deal, as confirmed by the U.S. special ambassador in the Note for the Record following Hebron and in the letter from the secretary of state confirming that Israel would determine the amount of land it gives up. For the United States to treat that recognition as a "dead letter" would be to destroy the trust that Israel needs in its strategic ally and so preclude the possibility of a final status agreement.

Underlying all the tensions, of course, are different expectations on the territorial outcome of a final-status negotiation. But Israel can never be expected to give up what is essential to its very survival, and every blow to its sense of trust makes it more likely that those final talks will end in deadlock and more violence. This is what the Israelis cannot forget. It should not be what the Clinton administration cannot remember. (US News & World Report Apr 20)

The writer is the editor-in-chief of the US News & World Report.

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