Netanyahu makes it easier for right to swallow peace

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 May, 1998, 12:00am

IN the two years since Israel elected Benjamin Netanyahu Prime Minister the prospect of Middle East peace has become more real - despite the rhetoric spun by all sides involved.

The march down the high road towards an historic reconciliation with the Palestinians begun by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres was abruptly diverted by Mr Netanyahu after his narrow victory. Mr Netanyahu's abrasiveness has not endeared him to the Palestinians nor to Israelis opposed to his hardline policies.

What it has done is make it easier for the half of the Israeli electorate with grave doubts about the peace process to swallow the concessions Mr Netanyahu will have to make for peace.

It is already evident that the hard edges separating right-wing Israelis from the peace process have substantially softened since the eruption of passions that led to Rabin's assassination and Mr Peres' election defeat.

While the right wing opposed a giveaway of territory when the Labour Party was in power, it is now prepared to accept concessions because the premier is perceived as a hard-nosed nationalist.

There are many even on the left who believe that had Mr Peres won the last elections and attempted to complete negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel's cohesion might have snapped, ending in armed conflict among Israelis.

Until a couple of years ago the right wing's rallying cry was that there could be no concessions to the Palestinians of even a centimetre of the West Bank, because it was sacred land God had given to Israel. Today, it is not a question of if Israel hands over land to the Palestinians, but rather how much.

Leaders of the National Religious Party speak of retaining 50-60 per cent of the West Bank in any final settlement. The remainder of the land, containing the great bulk of the Palestinian population, they are willing to concede to the Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu himself has indicated that these are roughly the parameters of his vision of a final settlement.

The tactical debate over what percentage of the West Bank is to be given up in Israel's next interim pullback - the nine per cent that Mr Netanyahu is offering, or the 13 per cent the Americans are demanding - is petty compared with the concession the right wing has already made in agreeing in principle to the transfer of any land to the Palestinians. So far 27 per cent of the West Bank and the bulk of the Gaza Strip have already been handed over to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Although the Palestinians demand 100 per cent of the West Bank, their leaders have indicated they would be satisfied with 90 per cent.

The debate, then, is no longer between all or nothing but between 45-50 per cent and 90 per cent, a gap that should not be difficult to close. One way or another, peace seems inevitable.