A vote for Bibi's sake

May 15, 2002

BENJAMIN "Bibi" Netanyahu, the telegenic, silver-tongued former Israeli prime minister, won a decisive victory this weekend in his campaign to undermine his rival, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But Mr. Netanyahu's political win is Israel's loss.

Mr. Netanyahu, the voice of the right wing in the hard-line Likud party, maneuvered his supporters at a meeting of the Likud's policymaking body to go on record opposing the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The resolution was not only a slap at Mr. Sharon, who argued vociferously to delay the vote, but also at American efforts to change the bloody dynamic of the 19-month-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It might boost Mr. Netanyahu's political profile among a certain sector of the Israeli public. It might even increase his chances to oust Mr. Sharon as the Likud candidate before the 2003 elections. But the resolution reinforces the perception, however wrong, that Israel wants to maintain the occupation by 3.3 million Palestinians that began 35 years ago. A top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, seized on the resolution as a sign that the overall goal of Israel's military offensive of the past month was not to wage a war on terrorism - as characterized by Mr. Sharon - but to reinforce its hold on Palestinian territories.

Mr. Netanyahu's political maneuvering comes at an unfortunate time. The Mideast conflict is in a holding pattern right now, due largely to Washington's re-engagement in the process and a peace initiative by Saudi Arabia's crown prince. The Bush administration's recent mediation efforts led to an end of Israel's siege of Palestinian cities, incursions that followed a barrage of daily terrorist attacks by Palestinian militants and extremists.

The focus now has been on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and that's where it should be.

Pressured by the Americans and Arab leaders, Mr. Arafat was expected to show some leadership and take decisive action against the terrorist groups. Some members of the militant Hamas movement were arrested following last week's suicide bombing at an Israeli pool hall.

Mr. Arafat also has been pressed to undertake political reforms. And voices within the Palestinian intellectual community were calling for the same. Those reforms are essential to achieving an independent Palestine.

As prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu talked tough, but his positions shifted according to the political winds and the comments from Washington. To think that he would be unmoved by the Bush administration's stand on an independent Palestine is unrealistic.

The Likud resolution as stated - "no Palestinian state will be created west of the Jordan [River]" - has no bearing in reality unless Israel wants to remain isolated in the region and by the larger world community.

Israel will continue to defend itself against terrorist attacks, as it should, but the tens of thousands of Israelis who demonstrated this weekend in Tel Aviv know what it will take to achieve a lasting peace: two states for two peoples.

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