Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of July 23, 1998
The fate of the government hangs in the balance this weekend. The battle for its survival is not being conducted in the corridors of the Knesset, but in phone calls between Jerusalem and China. When all of the facts emerge, it will surely be remembered as the white flag of Israel's surrender waving over the ancient Wall of China.
The widespread claims made in the local media, that Netanyahu is holding secret talks with the Syrians and is ready to surrender the Golan Heights, are merely a by-product of the main business at hand: the decision already taken in Jerusalem concerning the long-simmering peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. It was a decision taken by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu without the approval of his government, his cabinet or even his inner cabinet, with the exception of Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.
The protagonists in this drama are Netanyahu and National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, currently touring China as a guest of the Beijing authorities. The telephone lines between the two countries have been buzzing virtually nonstop as a result of what this column has discovered is the total collapse of Netanyahu's policy demanding that the Palestinians conform to their agreements inherent in the Oslo Accords, as well as promises made at the time of the signing of the Hebron agreement.
Our information is that Netanyahu had given in lock, stock and barrel, to the demands of the US administration and the PLO to surrender 13.1% of additional territory to Yasser Arafat, plus another one percent later. None of the premier's "reciprocal demands" have been accepted by the Palestinians. These include the insistence that the PLO covenant calling for the annihilation of Israel be annulled by the full Palestinian National Council; that 30 killers of Israelis (some serving in Arafat's paramilitary groups) be arrested and extradited to Israel to stand trial for murder; and that Arafat's militia groups be reduced to the number stipulated by Oslo. As it was put succinctly to us: "This is total surrender. Netanyahu is giving everything and getting nothing in return. The white flag is being raised by Netanyahu.
Sure, there will be a smooth public relations exercise, claiming that the US will ensure Arafat will curb terrorism and respond positively to the other demands made by the Israeli premier "There will be a stream of papers issued by the White House promising much. But all will be hot air. It essence it is total surrender - a reversal of everything that Netanyahu has been proclaiming publicly, radiating his aura of deep sincerity that he will stand firm in the interests of Israel' s security."
The brutal reality will be felt immediately by the Israelis who live in at least 18 settlements which will be enclosed in territory surrounded by Arafat's armed militia. Netanyahu's decision to cave in to the pressure, which has been relentless in recent months, has the backing of his defense minister.
The man leading the opposition to Netanyahu's fateful decision is Sharon who, on the eve of his departure for China, made plain that the government will not survive no confidence motions if he goes ahead with his present policy of surrender to Yasser Arafat. Sharon told Netanyahu from Beijing, in one of many phone calls between them: "I want this government to continue. But if you do not remain faithful to Eretz Yisrael you will lose your last chance of leading the nation." During the past few days, Sharon has contacted one after another of his fellow cabinet ministers and leaders of the national camp warning of the shock they are about to face.
Netanyahu has carefully chosen his timing about revealing his decision prior to next Wednesday - the final day before the Knesset breaks up for its three-month summer recess. We were told: "He's aware of the outcry from the very people who voted him into power, but he's banking on their tempers cooling during the coming 90 days. After reflection, they will have time to ponder surrendering their cushy jobs, the chauffeured cars, and other perks of high office. They will find a way for their consciences to come to terms with a decision which was inevitable."
"WHAT choice do they have?" is the driving force of his policy. "If they vote against me in a no-confidence motion they will ensure that Barak will become the next prime minister, leading a Labor government. How will that help their cause?" Determined to force Netanyahu to think again, Sharon has refused to be soft-soaped by the prime minister's honeyed words from Jerusalem. Repeatedly Sharon has cut him short and replied, "Your government will fall when the Knesset reconvenes if you continue with you folly. Your surrender of land vital to Israel's security is beyond politics. You will no longer be prime minister."
Another sign of the fierce determination to fight Netanyahu, even if it means the collapse of the government, came this week when Agriculture and Environment Minister Rafael Eitan announced that if Netanyahu surrenders 13.1 percent of territory, he will promptly resign. The Labor Party has got wind of what Netanyahu has in mind. Barak and his allies have postponed preliminary readings on two bills calling for the dissolution of the Knesset, until next Wednesday. Their hope is that Netanyahu will make public his surrender on the issue of withdrawal. This might give them more muscle to have the motions passed with the help of outraged right-wing MKs.
What lies behind Netanyahu's sudden decision to carry out his dramatic political about-face? It is clear from government insiders that he is alarmed by the world-wide criticism of his policies. He is also convinced that he can be persuasive enough and has the charm to swing support behind him no matter what he does. And above all, he is convinced that by presenting a "sincere" front, he will win enough votes no matter when new elections are held.
Perhaps he does not know the ancient Chinese proverb: "To show weakness in the shadow of the Great Wall of China will result in deep woe and failure."
(c) Jerusalem Post 1998