"BIBI WILL DO FINE," says Tommy Lapid, a longtime editorialist for the Israeli daily Ma'ariv and a regular on "Popolitika," Israel's answer to "The McLaughlin Group." Like every other Israeli I speak to about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's summit meeting with President Clinton, which begins today in Washington, Lapid foresees no unpleasantness.
"When it comes to style," he shrugs, "Netanyahu is almost a clone of Clinton. They will hit it off splendidly." But what about Clinton's blatant support for Shimon Peres in the Israeli elections five weeks ago? What about Netanyahu's rejection of the "land for peace" formula Washington so favors? "Never mind," says Lapid. "Bibi will easily find a common language with the Americans. He'll do very well on American TV. He will not be offensive; he'll be agreeably tough."
But Netanyahu isn't in Washington merely to play the role of an agreeably tough commando-turned-politician who speaks fluent American English and can charm Ted Koppel. His task is nothing less than redefining the terms of Arab-Israeli peacemaking -- without turning his back on the Oslo accords signed with such fanfare by his predecessors.
How will he do it? By driving home two key points during his US visit: (1) Where there's terror, there isn't peace. (2) Peacemaking is a two-way street.
The whole point of the Israel-PLO agreements was that in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from "occupied territories," the Palestinians would renounce terrorism and respect Israel's right to live in safety. Instead, those agreements ushered in the deadliest wave of terrorism in the Jewish state's history. In the 2 1/2 years since the Oslo accords were signed, more Israelis were killed in terror attacks than in any 2 1/2-year period since the country was founded.
It was the contention of Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's Labor Party prime ministers, that the savage violence and the Oslo process were unrelated. You could have buses exploding on Jerusalem's streets and children being blown up in Tel Aviv malls -- and you could have a "peace process" worthy of a Nobel Prize. After each atrocity, Rabin, and later Peres, would intone: "The peace process will go on." The victims they called "sacrifices for peace," as though the murder of innocents is some kind of down payment for amity. Undeterred by the rising body count (or by Yasser Arafat's unremittingly bloody rhetoric), they turned over territory to the PLO's control, released hundreds of Palestinian criminals from jail, and allowed the formation of a 50,000-man Palestinian police force. All the while, terrorist plotters continued to recruit, organize, and dispatch killers from Arafat's new domain.
Netanyahu is prime minister today because he pointed out that the emperor was naked. What kind of a "peace" is this, he demanded, when commuters are dying on their way to work? Terrorism is incompatible with peace; true peacemakers do not harbor terrorist groups. It was an argument that resonated deeply with Israeli Jews, almost 60 percent of whom voted for Netanyahu. With 19 US servicemen newly murdered in Dhahran, it is an argument that will resonate with Americans as well. Expect to hear it this week.
Expect to hear, too, about the PLO's blatant violations of the Oslo accords.
In his first speech to parliament as prime minister, Netanyahu laid down a marker: "The government of Israel," he declared, "will negotiate with the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the condition that it fulfill all its obligations."
That was not the attitude of the Rabin-Peres government, which -- eager to paint Oslo a success -- winked and blinked at one Palestinian violation after another. The failure of the PLO to amend its charter, which still calls for Israel's extermination, is only the most notorious. Other breaches include the Palestinian Authority's refusal to disarm the militias (such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad) that operate on its territory, to limit its police force to no more than 24,000, to extradite suspected terrorists when Israel presents a valid arrest warrant, to punish violent crimes committed against Israelis and to end its campaign of anti-Israel hate and incitement.
Despite its signed commitment to guarantee human rights and the rule of law, the PA practices arbitrary arrest and torture, strangles the press, and persecutes human rights activists. Despite the Oslo accords' strict ban on conducting political activity in Jerusalem, the PA runs as many as a dozen of its "ministries" inside the Israeli capital.
Even Americans who do not follow the twists of Middle East diplomacy understand that a deal is a deal. Israel's young leader is not likely to get an argument when he tells US audiences this week that peace agreements are worthless if only one side lives up to them.
Bibi Netanyahu's approach to peace -- like Ronald Reagan's 16 years ago -- is grounded in realism and strength, not wishful thinking and concessions. The paradigm that safely ended the Cold War can also be the one that at last secures peace between Israel and its neighbors. Netanyahu's job this week -- besides being "agreeably tough" -- is to explain how.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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