Moving towards peace

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 September, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 September, 1996, 12:00am

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, took a braver step than his detractors are prepared to admit when he met the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, this week. His previous avoidance of such an encounter, his hardline stand against relinquishing more territory to the Palestinians or Syria and his refusal to contemplate any Palestinian state were precisely the policies which won Mr Netanyahu power.

His hawkishness helped to oust the architect of the peace-process, Shimon Peres. Yet now, against his own instincts and in defiance of the right-wing of his own Likud party, Mr Netanyahu has made a gesture which not only recognises Mr Arafat's legitimacy as a leader and negotiating partner, but also restores the status of the existing peace accords.

He has also issued a challenge to his harshest critics among Likud extremists in the government to stand by his leadership or resign. They have not had the nerve to do so. Like Mr Netanyahu, they will have read yesterday's polls showing that 75 per cent of Israelis approve of his meeting Mr Arafat.

But neither the re-recognition of Mr Arafat nor the re-assertion of his authority are guarantees that the Prime Minister will take the peace process further forward. It is time for a more explicit gesture of good will. The redeployment of Israeli troops out of Hebron, the last West Bank city still not under Palestinian control, is six months overdue. It is time to give the order to leave.

This would not be an easy withdrawal. Nor would it be as complete as elsewhere. In Hebron, Jews and Arabs pray at the same holy places. Jewish settlers there continue to demand protection, despite the tensions this causes.

But, without some demonstration of good faith, the peace process may not endure, Mr Arafat almost certainly will not survive and Israel's own long-term security could also be at risk. Mr Peres saw this clearly. It would be encouraging if Mr Netanyahu showed similar understanding.