Violence, security plan, pressure from right: Obstacles could delay Wye implementation

In this short span of seven days, a Jewish settler has been slain and a Palestinian killed in retaliation. Death threats have been leveled against Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel has accused the Palestinians of reneging on an agreement to produce a written security plan by today. The Palestinians have accused Israel's cabinet of postponing a vote on the Wye plan in the hope of appeasing critics. And Jewish settlers and other right-wing Israelis have begun initiatives to force new Israel elections.

Both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat are publicly maintaining that they will implement the Wye Memorandum.

"I am proud of what we achieved," Netanyahu said Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, a hardliner, continued to support the pact as well.

"No one else could bring a better situation. We could not have gone [to the Wye summit] and said we are against the entire process. In my view, our situation would have been worse," Sharon declared Wednesday.

But doubts remained high enough mid-week that President Clinton re-entered the fray.

"I would urge all the onlookers here, including all of us in the press and in public life, not to overreact to every little bump and turn in the road," Clinton said.

Netanyahu "knows there's a lot of opposition in the government and in his political base to this agreement, and he wants to be absolutely assured that the early steps are taken on the other side," Clinton continued.

"I believe that if we complete the security arrangements that were agreed to at Wye that the Israeli government will approve this and honor their commitment. And we'll go forward."

Netanyahu, however, has been refusing to act until the Palestinians produce a specific plan to guarantee Israel's security.

"It has become apparent…that the Palestinians are not fulfilling their commitment in accordance with the schedule agreed upon. In light of this, the cabinet will convene to ratify the deal immediately after we receive the Palestinians' working plan against terror," Netanyahu announced Tuesday night.

American officials seem mystified at the developments. According to one U.S. official, implementation of the agreement will start as planned on Monday — 10 days after the signing and regardless of when, or even if, the Israeli cabinet ratifies the deal.

U.S. special envoy Dennis Ross is scheduled to arrive in Mideast on Tuesday to oversee the start of the implementation "because he can count to 10," the official said.

The Wye Memorandum itself says only that the "work plan developed by the Palestinian side will be shared with the U.S." and does not specify when such a plan will be presented.

Observers noted that Netanyahu was perhaps looking for an excuse to defer the presentation of the agreement to give himself more time to shore up support for the deal.

Ironically, however, several ministers said they would use the extra time to further study the deal, find more loopholes, and try to get answers from Netanyahu on what they consider the most "murky details."

Foremost among these is the question of whether the Palestinians and the Israelis understand in the same way the phrase "The Palestinian Council will invite the members of the PNC [Palestinian National Council]…to a meeting."

It seems there is confusion on that vital point. The Israelis are saying the Palestinian covenant will be legally changed by the PNC. And the Palestinians are seeing it as a popular demonstration of support for the peace process.

Along with the Palestinians' promise to publicly revoke their charter, the agreement hammered out after nine days of roller-coaster talks at the Wye Plantation in eastern Maryland includes the following provisions:

*An Israeli troop redeployment from an additional 13 percent of the West Bank.

*The release of some 750 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

*Opening safe passage routes for Palestinians traveling between the West Bank and Gaza.

*A comprehensive security arrangement, carried out with CIA oversight, under which the Palestinian police will arrest terrorist suspects and confiscate unlicensed weapons.

The 12-week implementation period will doubtless be replete with crises, some evolving out of ongoing negotiations surrounding the implementation itself, some engendered by the provocations of opponents of the accord on the radical fringes of both Palestinian and Israeli society.

In respect to the latest roadblocks, senior Palestinian negotiator Hassan Asfour told Reuters that the delay is "an indication of Netanyahu's political cowardice."

Many Israelis, however, see Netanyahu as having forever changed their country's political scene.

After the latest agreement, the clear-cut distinction between left and right, hawk and dove, in Israeli politics has been blurred.

Labor leader Ehud Barak, for example, said his party would make common cause with the ultra-right Moledet Party and with rightist renegades within the governing coalition to bring down Netanyahu.

But that plan is being openly challenged by some prominent figures within Labor, among them former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

They feel that to oppose the government now, before Wye's implementation has even begun, would be construed by the public as opposition for opposition's sake, or, worse, as opposing peace.

They add that the best interests of peace would be served by the present, Likud-led government actually withdrawing the army from a significant portion of Eretz Israel.

If Netanyahu fails to implement the accord on schedule, they say, there will then be time enough for Labor to take issue with the prime minister.

The confusion in Labor is mirrored by confusion and conflict within the hard-line right.

The National Religious Party, comfortably in command of the education and transportation ministries, is plainly less than happy to leave office for the barren pastures of opposition, fearing especially that Likud and Labor — their differences now narrowed — may team up in a government of national unity.

For now, only those on the far right are saying that Netanyahu must be felled regardless of what coalition may take power in his place.

The various arguments within the leftist and rightist camps may be cut short by Netanyahu himself: Some observers believe that the prime minister, if he finds his ability to govern hamstrung by the threats of defection, may actually initiate early elections himself.

That scenario is predicated on the assessment that Netanyahu's popularity is bound to rise with the successful conclusion of the Wye accord, especially among the middle-of-the-road voters whom Barak must win over if he is to have any chance of capturing the premiership.

According to a poll published by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, 74 percent of Israelis support the Wye accord. Another 18 percent oppose the pact, while 8 percent have no opinion.

Certainly, it would be hard today for Labor to tar Netanyahu with the anti-peace brush with which it has grown used to painting him these past two years.

What does that mean for election tactics — whenever an election eventually takes place? And, beyond tactics, what does it mean for the evolution of Israeli politics in the long term?

So far, the 20 years of fitful peacemaking that have elapsed since the signing of the Camp David accords in September 1978 have not seriously eroded the left-right divide that cuts through Israeli politics.

Now, after Wye, that deep divide might at last be closing, as the Likud prime minister embraces the land-for-peace logic that lies at the heart of Oslo.