June 7, 1996 | Executive Memorandum on Middle East
Contrary to the prevailing opinion in the American media, which often demonized Netanyahu's Likud Party, the Israeli elections were not a referendum on Arab-Israeli peace. By electing Netanyahu, Israelis did not vote against peace, they voted for security. The Israeli public has grown increasingly embittered in recent months by the deteriorating personal security situation. Sadly, the 217 Israelis killed by terrorists since the September 1993 Israeli-Palestinian accord exceeds the 209 killed in the entire decade before the accord was signed on the White House lawn. Clearly, the peace negotiations launched by the Yitzhak Rabin-Shimon Peres government failed to safeguard Israeli security against terrorist attack. If the prevailing trends had continued, support for the peace talks inside Israel would have eroded to such an extent that they would have been doomed to failure.
Netanyahu pragmatically has pledged to continue the peace negotiations. But instead of obsessively advancing the "peace process," he has spoken of making progress on the "peace and security process." Netanyahu declared that the Likud would not have signed the 1993 Oslo agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, but he has accepted it as a diplomatic fait accompli that must be respected as long as the Palestinians live up to their commitments under the agreement. He is expected to be much more forceful than his predecessors in insisting on total Palestinian compliance with the interim agreements negotiated thus far. In particular, he has expressed great dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority's failure to crack down systematically on terrorists and to extradite terrorists that have murdered Israelis.
The precise outlines of Netanyahu's policies will not become clear until he forms a government and drafts a coalition agreement that spells out government policy on critical issues. The Prime Minister-elect hopes to complete this process and present his cabinet to the new parliament when it convenes on June 17. The Likud's 32 parliamentary seats leave it 29 seats short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. This means Netanyahu will have to strike deals with at least four other political parties to bring them into a governing coalition, a political necessity that will substantially shape the policies of his government.
During the election campaign Netanyahu promised two major changes in policy toward the West Bank and Gaza: He would revive the settlement program frozen by the Rabin-Peres government and he will give the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) full freedom of action in combating terrorism inside autonomous Palestinian areas. Each of these policies could disrupt the negotiations if pursued too vigorously, but if pursued judiciously may become a useful bargaining chip in the final status talks with the Palestinians that began in May.
The first major test of Israeli-Palestinian relations under the new government is likely to come over the question of Israeli military withdrawal from Hebron, the last Palestinian city under direct Israeli control. The Labor government had agreed to withdraw Israeli forces from most of the city, except for an area inhabited by 450 Israeli settlers, by mid-June. Netanyahu had criticized this decision during the election campaign, but stated noncommittally after the election that he had requested a "study" on the issue.
While Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians are likely to proceed at a more deliberate pace than in the past, Israel's relations with Jordan, another peace partner, may actually improve. Jordan's King Hussein, who defeated Yasser Arafat's PLO in a bloody civil war in 1970, was known to be nervous about the close cooperation between Israel's Labor government and his Palestinian rival, which he feared would come at his expense. King Hussein already has publicly proclaimed support for Netanyahu and expressed confidence that the new Prime Minister will continue Israel's peace efforts.
The biggest change in Israel's foreign policy is likely to come in its strategy toward Syria. Netanyahu has ruled out a military withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights, Israeli-occupied territory that dominates the Syrian-Israeli border area. But he has pledged to make diplomatic efforts to reach incremental agreements that could greatly improve Syrian-Israeli relations.
Adjusting U.S. Policy
Despite the Clinton Administration's open efforts to boost Peres's re-election campaign, Netanyahu assured President Clinton after the election that Israeli-American relations are "as stable as a rock." The relationship between Netanyahu's government and the Clinton Administration probably will pass through an initial honeymoon period that could last through the November U.S. elections. But friction is likely to develop on a number of fronts: the Hebron withdrawal issue, Netanyahu's plans to boost settlement activities, disagreements over security issues, and clashes over peace negotiations.
To minimize tension in bilateral relations and improve diplomatic cooperation on peace and other issues, the Clinton Administration should:
Contrary to what passes for conventional wisdom in Washington, Prime Minister Netanyahu will be a pragmatic leader with a realistic foreign policy. Unlike the Peres and Clinton Administrations, which have made the peace process an end in itself, Netanyahu sees peace negotiations as a means to an end -- building a stable and genuine peace based on hardheaded security arrangements.