After some traditional Middle East bargaining, Israel and the Palestinian authority recently initialed a protocol for the redeployment of Israeli forces from the West Bank city of Hebron. The accord, which was delayed not only by haggling but also by terrorist attacks in Israel and by the security concerns of the ruling Israeli Likud bloc, is a positive step toward peace. At the same time, while the Hebron issue is a done deal on paper, it, and some of its consequences, remain problematic for several reasons.
First, in order to sign the agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to compromise his position within the Likud and broader right-leaning coalition. Some members of his coalition were strongly against the agreement and even threatened to undermine his position if he signed it. Although the Israeli Cabinet backed the Hebron deal by a vote of 11 to 7, the debate was heated.
After the vote, Benny Begin, son of the late Likud leader Menachem Begin, resigned his position as science minister. While Netanyahu prevailed, he expended political capital to do so. This probably means that he will have less room
to maneuver in negotiations on future issues. As a result, rising expectations on the Arab side are less likely to be met by Israel in the future.
Second, beyond his own party, Netanyahu has detractors in the Israeli public. While a majority of Israelis support the Hebron accord, a minority sees it as evidence that Netanyahu is starting look too much like the dovish former prime minister, Shimon Peres. Such sentiment, to which Netanyahu is highly sensitive, will put further pressure on him to be tough down the road.
Third, beyond his own party, Netanyahu faces an interesting cast of disgruntled Jewish fundamentalist forces to his right. They include Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful), Kach and Tehiya (Resurrection). These parties strongly support the 450 Jews who live in Hebron against the wishes of 91 percent of Arab residents. The fundamentalist forces tend to view the Hebron accord as a betrayal.
Indeed, they recall that in response to the signing of the interim agreement (the Oslo 2 accord that preceded the Hebron agreement well before Netanyahu took office), rightist elements, including Netanyahu, Tsomet party leader Rafael Eitan and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir held a signing ceremony to assert that "abandoning parts of our land is in vain. This has not increased our security but increased the appetite of those who are besieging us."
Yet now, Netanyahu, in their eyes, is doing exactly what he warned against. Shamir, who is not a fundamentalist Jew but like other Israelis on the right shares some of their views on the peace process, stated as much after Netanyahu signed the recent Hebron deal and called for a new leader of Likud.
Many individuals on the far Israeli right see the Hebron accord as a dangerous step toward the loss of Jewish control over biblical lands. And they, as well as part of the mainstream Israeli public, are concerned that Israeli security would be threatened if Palestinians increase their power and position.
The largest fundamentalist group, Gush Emunim, has only 15,000 to 25,000 active members. However, because the re-emergence of Jewish fundamentalists in the late 1970s, the movement has been gaining ground. It now commands serious attention even outside its small nucleus of fervent activists.
The West Bank, which Israelis call Judea and Samaria in biblical terms, is referred to in the Bible as God-given land. Most fundamentalists believe that God's redemption of Jews is impossible if this land is relinquished. Thousands of years of Jewish history, thus, hinge on this disputed land.
The annexation of Judea, Samaria and Gaza is a central part of Tehiya's platform, which its members have pushed in the Israeli Knesset. While Gush Emunim, like Hamas, has its moderates, most party faithful believe that all of Israel, including the territories, is biblically derived Jewish land.
Fourth, beyond facing organized, democratic opposition, the Israeli government may very well face increasing violence from disillusioned citizens on the far right. The recent rifle attack by a Jewish soldier on Palestinians could presage more acts of this kind.
While Jewish fundamentalists are not alone among Israelis in believing that Israel should not relinquish strategic territory for a dubious peace, they are distinguished by their increasing militancy. The issue of Hebron for them is potent because it intertwines security, religion, politics and standard of life. It is safe to say that some of them will be willing to die to assert their position on this issue. This could transform the Hebron issue yet again into a more volatile form.
While the Hebron accord was a necessary and vital step on the road to peace, it would be foolish to view it as evidence that the peace process is in full swing. Rather, it has put in motion both positive and negative effects. The accord's opponents in Israel are more than matched by opponents on the Palestinian side, and may have at least one thing in common - a wish to undermine the peace process.
Steve Yetiv is an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University and a research affiliate at Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
Pub Date: 1/19/97