Jerusalem Post, January 25 1997

NETANYAHU'S FINAL STATUS STRATEGY

GERALD M. STEINBERG

Despite appearances to the contrary, Mr. Netanyahu has a strategy

in dealing with the Palestinians. This strategy was clearly embodied in

the agreement linking the Hebron withdrawal with the three Israeli

redeployments from Area B. By delaying these pullbacks and limiting their

scope, Netanyahu has given his government more options in the final status

negotiations, including alternatives to a Palestinian state.

While most of the attention was focused on Hebron, the most important issue

has always been final status agreement to be concluded by May 1999.

Under "Oslo 2", Israel withdrew from six cities, and now Hebron, and also

pledged to make three more redeployments to "specified military

locations". While these locations are not specified in this agreement,

Arafat has stated that he expects this to include from 80% to 90% of the

land still under Israeli control. In the Beilin-Mazan plan, although

never officially accepted, over 90% of the territory was to be transferred

to the Palestinian state.

Had such deployments taken place, Israel would have been faced with a fait

accompli. With control over most of the territory, the Palestinians could

have declared an independent state at any time, without Israeli agreement.

Going into the final status negotiations, Netanyahu would have been left

without any cards to play. The Palestinians make it clear that they are

going to demand a state, and if Israel refuses, Arafat would have had

little to lose by acting unilaterally.

Netanyahu has often stated his opposition to a fully sovereign

Palestinian state, for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons. From

the perspective of security, an independent Palestinian state would be a

threat to Israel and a source of instability in the region. Irredentists

would seek more and more of Israeli territory, and forge alliances with

Iraq and other violent groups in the Middle East. Armed with tactical

missiles and other weapons brought through air and sea ports, the

Palestinians could disrupt Israeli

aircraft and tank movements in the event of war and also be a base for

terrorism.

On the other hand, during the negotiations, if Israel continues to

control large areas in the disputed territory (approximately 50% or more,

distributed in a defensible pattern), the Palestinians will have great

difficulty in unilaterally declaring or being recognized as a viable

state.

This means that Arafat will be pressed to seek his objectives within the

negotiations, and to respond to the security requirements of Israel and

the rest of the region.

Beyond a Palestinian state, what are the options for final status?

Some have already been discussed by Mr. Netanyahu and David Bar Ilan.

These include a limited state, (the examples of Andorra and Puerto Rico,

are misleading, as this situation is unique and their may not be any

precedents). Alternatively, there is the possibility of a link to Jordan,

perhaps in the form of a federation. In this way, external security and

defense would be the responsibility of the Jordanian government, in

coordination with Israel, while the Palestinians would enjoy full internal

independence and self-determination.

From the perspectives of regional security and stability, a

Palestinian-Jordanian federation may be preferable to a Palestinian state.

With dreams of full independence, the Palestinians may be reluctant to

accept this option, but if they are given the choice of a freeze in the

process, with Israel still controlling at least 50% of the territory, or

federation, they may be persuaded to accept the latter, or risk losing the

gains they made in the Oslo process. It will also be more difficult for

Arafat and the PLO to revert to terrorism in order to pressure Israel into

making concessions.

This is the importance of the changes in the original agreements,

and not those that pertain to security within Hebron. By delaying the

last and most important stage in this process until mid-1988, Netanyahu

has the next 18 months to test Palestinian intentions. If, during this

time, Arafat insists on a fully sovereign state as the only option, or

threatens to declare a state unilaterally, the Israeli side can maintain

its current deployments.

In addition to gaining leverage with respect to the Palestinians,

the letter that Secretary of State Christopher gave to Prime Minister

Netanyahu also strengthens the Israeli position. In this letter, and in

the remarks of Dennis Ross, the Americans endorsed Israel's right to

decide the nature of the withdrawals in each of the three further

redeployments independently, and they are not subject to further

negotiations. This is a reflection of

the American understanding of Israeli security concerns, but it is not

unlikely that the US government shares the Israeli concerns regarding a

unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence.

Contrary to the "conventional wisdom", the Israeli government's

policies in the Hebron negotiation may have actually saved the peace

process. At the same time, Netanyahu has also created the basis for

stability after the final status negotiations have been completed. While

critics can charge that this took too long, and the price was too high, it

was not without logic or benefit.

Gerald Steinberg is a Senior Research Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for

Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University.