PHILADELPHIA -- What does Benjamin Netanyahu want? The question of the Israeli prime minister's intentions has never been more crucial -- or more troubling.
This week, Israelis and Palestinians were supposed to start peace talks on the toughest agenda items that were left for last -- ''final status'' issues such as Palestinian borders and the future of Jerusalem. Instead, tensions are soaring, as Israel starts construction on a new Jewish settlement in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.
Mr. Netanyahu chastises the Palestinians for threatening violence; he rightly demands that grievances be addressed at the bargaining table. But the Israeli leader himself is rushing to foreclose most options on issues such as Jerusalem and borders before final negotiations even start by making changes on the ground.
So the question of his intentions becomes ever more puzzling. nTC Based on recent conversations I had with Mr. Netanyahu in Davos, Switzerland, I think he wants to continue the peace process, but on terms that cannot work.
The Israeli leader says he was elected premier to ''negotiate differently toward a different end'' than Labor Party predecessors, the late Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Rabin had a clear, if unwritten, understanding with the Palestinians that a final deal meant trading West Bank and Gaza land for peace.
He believed that Israel's interests and security would be best served by the ''separation'' of Israeli and Palestinian territory, giving the Palestinians their own territorial entity. No doubt this Palestinian ministate would have been linked in some way with neighboring Jordan, led by Rabin's friend, King Hussein. It surely would have been demilitarized.
Rabin aimed at ridding Israelis of the burden of occupying another people. He saw peace with the Palestinians as the key to widespread acceptance of Israel by other Arab countries and throughout the world, and as prelude to a flood of foreign investment in Israel. The Oslo accords delivered these goods.
Mr. Netanyahu comes from a very different ideological tradition. His Likud Party has historically claimed the whole West Bank as part of the Land of Israel and used to claim neighboring Jordan as well. Separation of Israeli and Palestinian territory is anathema to the Likud.
Because Mr. Netanyahu accepted the Oslo peace accords framework and withdrew from Hebron, many analysts argued that he was a pragmatist in ideologue's clothing. Any extreme moves, they contended, were forced on him by political pressure from his right-wing allies.
But his words and deeds contradict the pragmatist label. In Davos, he described his vision of a final settlement.
A third choice
''I think there is a third choice between unbridled self-determination and military subjugation,'' Mr. Netanyahu suggested. Palestinians would have ''functional powers'' to govern themselves, he said, ''without powers to threaten Israel.''
The term ''state'' wouldn't fit the kind of powers the Palestinians would have. They could choose their leaders, vote their laws and taxes and run their affairs. But they wouldn't have control over borders, airspace, military force, foreign policy or water. Nor would they have control over Jewish settlements on the West Bank or roads connecting those settlements with Israel, nor any foothold in Jerusalem.
What an outsider wouldn't glean from this description is how it would look on a map. The network of Jewish settlements and roads on the West Bank breaks the area up into a grid. If Israel retains control over all settlements, roads and borders, land returned to ''functional'' Palestinian control would be split into unconnected pieces, like spots on a leopard.
When I asked Mr. Netanyahu if Israel would permit any territorial contiguity between the pieces, he said, ''It's something I think about.''
In other words, on this most basic question he is noncommittal. But when Israel recently gave Palestinians control over small additional bits of West Bank land, one condition was that no unconnected Palestinian areas be linked.
Not surprisingly, Palestinians fear that Mr. Netanyahu's plans would force them to live in disconnected ''Bantustans.'' That is the situation now, and it is an economic disaster. Palestinian merchants and farmers, trying to get their goods to market, often can't proceed beyond checkpoints that separate their towns and villages. Nor can they export or import; Israeli security checks at the borders often hold their goods and produce for days until they spoil.
The leopard-skin solution isn't viable. Rabin understood that for peace to work, the Palestinians had to be able to build an economy and polity on contiguous territory, with territorial links to the outside Arab world. He was willing to relinquish sovereignty over many (not all) Jewish settlements, permitting the Palestinians to link their territorial spots.
By moving to expand settlements, Mr. Netanyahu is signaling to the Palestinians that the negotiating game is irrelevant. New roads and Jewish housing will cut the northern portion of the West Bank off from the south. The new settlement in East Jerusalem nearly completes a ring of Jewish settlements cutting the city off from the West Bank.
Such building isn't forbidden by the Oslo treaty, but it makes a mockery of the talks and practically ensures their undoing. If Mr. Netanyahu wants differences negotiated, without violence, then both sides must play by the same rules.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Pub Date: 3/21/97