JERUSALEM -- When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed off on the deal to withdraw Israeli forces from Hebron last week, he became the first leader of the Likud bloc ever to give away a piece of Eretz Israel -- the biblical Land of Israel.
He departed from the fundamental principle of his wing of Zionism: land for peace -- up to a point; biblical Judea and Samaria -- not an inch. For this he was reviled by some of his own staunchest constituents and applauded by the other side.
Yossi Beilin, a Labor Party negotiator in the Israeli-PLO accords worked out secretly in Norway in 1993, welcomed Netanyahu to the "Oslo Club."
But Netanyahu does not want to be a member of that club.
He was obliged to sign off on Hebron because the government that preceded his committed Israel to the withdrawal. He has more latitude with the harder parts to come:
The status of Jerusalem, the city of King David, holy to three great religions, claimed by Israelis and Palestinians as their rightful capital.
The fate of the Jewish settle ments, with some 130,000 Israelis living in stucco and red-roofed towns built along the West Bank hills since Israel captured the territory from Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Creation of an independent Palestinian state, the ultimate goal of Yasser Arafat and his people.
In a speech to the Israeli Parliament last week, Netanyahu made clear where he stood on the ultimate issues to be decided in this process he inherited from a dovish, Labor government.
"To maintain the unity of Jerusalem," which means one, Israeli Jerusalem.
"To ensure the security depth necessary for the defense of the state," which means hanging on to as much of the rest of the West Bank as possible.
"To insist on the right of Jews to settle in their land," which means the West Bank.
"To propose to the Palestinians a suitable arrangement for self-rule but without the sovereign powers which pose a threat to the State of Israel."
The Palestinians have been equally firm on what they expect on these "final status" issues that the two sides are to begin negotiating in two months.
"We want a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, "and we want withdrawal to the 1967 borders," he said, which would mean all the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem.
"We want to live alone, to live independent, next to Israel, and we will build the more doable coexisting relationship with Israel as our neighbor."
Some observers saw Netanyahu's signing of the Hebron deal as a sign that he was willing to depart from the hard line.
The Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv marked the occasion with an unusual front page commentary by its editor in chief.
"Benjamin Netanyahu began to march on a new path. He is moving on a road he has chosen, far from everything he has declared in the past; on a draft covered in his fingerprints, where he is threatened personally and politically," wrote Yaakov Erez. "He is giving peace a chance. He is bringing us back the hope."
But David Bar Illan, a key aide to the prime minister, said the events of the past week are consistent with what Netanyahu has said all along. And, if anything, what they reveal is this: "We have a pragmatist rather than an ideologue at the head of the government," said Bar Illan.
But how practical can Netanyahu be on the weighty issues of the final-status talks? Those who praised Netanyahu last week also questioned his commitment to the process in the face of these complex issues such as Jerusalem and the settlements.
Ehud Barak, a Labor leader who wants to be prime minister, doubts the ability of the government, given its religious, nationalistic constituency, to "do the right thing" to achieve peace during the permanent status negotiations: "The peace train is leaving the station and Benjamin Netanyahu is the engineer, but I don't know if it will reach the other station."
Dan Meridor, finance minister in the Likud government, argued that the Likud took the first step toward peace more than 20 years ago, when the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the peace treaty with Egypt and returned all of the Sinai peninsula to the Egyptians.
"We are in the process of trying to build a new relationship with the Palestinian Arabs. The risks are very high," Meridor told Israel Radio. "It's going to be a very difficult road. Nevertheless, at the same time I do believe there is a slight chance that we will be able to create a different reality in the Middle East. We have to take the responsibility given to us and try to shape the borders of Israel and the might of Israel and the military defensibility of Israel."
The Likud's next moves, he said, "will define how Israel will look for generations."
Many in the Netanyahu camp objected to the commitment to redeploy troops from other parts of the West Bank that accompanied the Hebron deal -- on ideological grounds and because they weaken Israel's position in the final status talks.
"It's a pity we didn't follow that path that would have given us the best chances of achieving a good permanent agreement," said Mikhail Kleiner, a coalition member in Parliament. "Because the bargaining would have started while we still have Judea and Samaria in our fold. Negotiating a permanent agreement after a self-declared Palestinian state is established will be much more difficult."
During the protracted negotiations over Hebron, Netanyahu won a slight change in the original agreement -- a requirement that the Palestinians live up to their end of the agreement on a variety of issues, including terrorism.
This "principle of reciprocity" could provide Netanyahu -- or the Palestinians, for that matter -- the excuse to delay the final status talks or interrupt them.
Unlike Hebron, which was already mapped out when Netanyahu came to power last May, there is no blueprint on the final status issues.
Netanyahu can be as tough or as flexible as he wants.
"The final status has not been determined at all," said Bar Illan, the Netanyahu aide. "The only thing was that final status would begin and end. The actual consequences have been taken for granted by the whole world, the Palestinians and the press. There is nothing there that says there has to be a Palestinian state or that it has to be to the 1967 lines."
The prime minister, Bar Illan said, "feels he has the leeway to act much more toughly than the Labor government."
Joseph Alpher, a Middle East analyst, predicts that Netanyahu will face demands from settlers to expand their communities in the West Bank.
In the forthcoming redeployment from rural areas of the West Bank, Alpher said, Netanyahu will be under pressure to give back as little as possible.
Pub Date: 1/19/97