PARIS — PARIS -- Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu are playing a lethal version of the children's game called "Flinch." Israel's Prime Minister needs to force the Palestinian leader or his followers to break off the so-called peace process, or to do something that could be interpreted as a deliberate break. Yasser Arafat must keep the Palestinians from being provoked into doing what Mr. Netanyahu wants.
Mr. Arafat's own and his movement's survival depend now on support from Washington and from the European powers. To keep that support Mr. Arafat has to remain Israel's victim -- and the leader who is willing to be reasonable. It is the main negotiating power left to him. But the despairing fury of the Palestinian masses may sweep him aside.
Mr. Netanyahu has from the beginning declared that he intends to replace the bargain of land for peace, made by his predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, with a new bargain which he calls "peace for peace." In this, the Palestinian authorities would prevent violence and terrorist attacks against Israel, and in exchange Israel would leave the Palestinians at peace to exercise autonomy within the territories they today occupy.
There will be no Palestinian state, no sharing of Jerusalem, and no halt to the "thickening" and expansion of existing Jewish colonies on the West Bank and in Gaza.
Mr. Netanyahu proposes "continuous negotiations" that would reopen some problems already settled, adding that the Palestinians' violence last week will not be "rewarded," that Mr. Arafat must promise there will be no more violence, and that if there should be violence, Israel will consider itself free to break its promises. This obviously is the language of ultimatums, not of negotiations.
Because Mr. Netanyahu's stands on Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood pre-empt the outcome of the peace process to which the Israeli government committed itself in Oslo and at the White House in 1993, it is necessary to Mr. Netanyahu that a formal break in the process be accountable to the Palestinians.
Thus he and his government say that last week's conflicts were planned and instigated by the Palestinian authorities in order to generate international pressures on Israel and induce concessions by the new government. Reopening the archaeological tunnel near the Al Aqsa mosque, according to them, was merely a pretext Mr. Arafat seized upon for what Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters call acts of aggression against Israel.
This will remain the Israeli position: that Israel is the victim of Palestinian maneuver and aggression. The fault in the argument is that the Palestinians now have nothing lasting to gain from more violence.
Mr. Arafat found short-term advantage in last week's events, as they momentarily re-established his authority as the only credible Palestinian leader, and they put the conflict back on the American agenda. But the Palestinians cannot win a war against Israel.
More violence plays into Mr. Netanyahu's hands, and if it gets out of control -- which is more than possible, given the frustrations of the Palestinians, as well as the fears and divisions among the Israelis -- Israel will crush the Palestinians.
The Israeli government threatened last week to send tanks back FTC into supposedly autonomous Palestinian towns and territories to disarm the Palestinian police, which are lightly armed and would certainly lose in the end, even if the battle to disarm them caused many Israeli casualties.
It might also, of course, invite a new attack from Israel's neighbors.
Mr. Netanyahu, despite what he has done, does not want war. He was elected to bring Israel "peace with security." If his policies bring war and gross insecurity, that will turn the Israeli electorate against him.
He wants, and must have, the Palestinians' submission. Mr. Netanyahu, like the settlers, and many of the Likud party's members, and others on the right, holds that an Israeli population of some 4.5 million can permanently dominate the 1 million Palestinians who live on the West Bank, while continuing to colonize what they call Judaea and Samaria.
Israel's physical power to do so is undoubted. But is Israel morally capable of permanently imposing "Bantustans" upon the Palestinians, or recreating a form of apartheid -- or of simply driving the Palestinians out? It is impossible to believe that, which would be Israel's moral suicide.
There is Mr. Netanyahu's weakness. It is why his policy will sooner or later be repudiated. But the repudiation may be too late.
William Pfaff writes a syndicated column.
Pub Date: 10/04/96