News Analysis: Decision on West Bank leaves questions, not answers

JERUSALEM — The Israeli government's vaguely worded decision this week on further moves in the West Bank did more than confuse the world.

It also served to quell a brief flurry of hope at home on the political left — and fear on the right — that the peace process may soon move forward.

The ministers endorsed in principle the idea that Israeli troops would cede another swath of West Bank land to the Palestinians as part of the long-stalled Oslo process.

But they hedged the decision with a lengthy list of conditions that rendered it, in the view of most observers, effectively dead.

"Tell me who voted for it, and I'll tell you what it means," said Knesset member Yossi Sarid, head of the dovish Meretz Party.

Sixteen of the 18 ministers in the Israeli Cabinet supported Sunday's decision; the two National Religious Party ministers abstained.

Sarid noted that when the Cabinet voted in January to relinquish most of Hebron, that decision — including a reaffirmation of Israel's commitment to carry out three further redeployments in the West Bank — passed by a much narrower majority, 11-7.

Sunday's decision marked the sudden end to intense hard-line pressure against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, marked by demonstrations outside his home in Jerusalem and by angry meetings between West Bank settlers and their Knesset allies.

Gesher Knesset member Michael Kleiner, who heads the Land of Israel group, a coalition of hard-line Knesset members, had gone so far as to threaten that he and his colleagues would join forces with the opposition to bring the government down if it persisted in its plan to offer further territorial concessions to the Palestinians.

In the end, Kleiner's group welcomed Sunday's decision, and all of its members dutifully supported the government Monday in a failed no-confidence motion introduced by Meretz.

Most Israeli political pundits believe that the move merely deferred a showdown in the Cabinet.

A four-man subcommittee — including Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, Foreign Minister David Levy and National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon — has been charged with preparing a detailed proposal for the redeployment for discussion by the Cabinet.

Palestinians reacted coldly to the move. The Egyptians, briefed early in the week by Netanyahu's aides, also voiced criticism.

But the United States, which had been pressing Israel for a "credible and significant" redeployment, is preferring to reserve judgment, waiting to see what specifics ensue.

State Department spokesman James Rubin said Monday that Israel's decision was "a step in the right direction."

But its practical provisions make it clear that what is envisaged is one modest pullback — instead of the three prescribed in the Oslo Accords.

This redeployment, moreover, is to take place only after the Cabinet has put forward a plan for a permanent-status solution.

Specifically, the Cabinet must delineate, among other issues, "the vital security areas, the settlement areas, vital interests such as water, historic and Jewish sites."

In addition, any redeployment is contingent on the Palestinians fulfilling their commitments under the Hebron agreement. These are not specified, but government officials said they referred to Palestinian pledges to amend their national covenant — which calls for the destruction of Israel — and to extradite terrorists and fight against terror.

Given the composition of Netanyahu's coalition, it is more than likely that permanent-status terms emerging from the Cabinet would elicit a hostile rejection from the opposition, which would probably kill the proposed redeployment altogether.

For their part, the Palestinians say that by offering a single redeployment, and explicitly ruling out other later ones, the Israeli government is effectively giving notice that Oslo is no longer binding.

Under the terms of the 1995 Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel was to carry out three redeployments by next year.

It is in this context that an apparent "comeback" appearance Monday by Sharon on Israel Television pricked the ears of seasoned analysts.

Close to his 70th birthday but looking fit, Sharon did not balk at the possibility that he might in the future challenge Netanyahu for the leadership of the Likud and for the premiership.

Sharon is recently back from a trip to the United States that included talks with President Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger — talks held at a time when the White House had shut Netanyahu out.

Asked if he had grown more moderate, Sharon responded that both he and the Israeli public had "changed" over recent years and that the peace process had created new realities that required new responses.

Indeed, he said, Israel must accept the establishment of a Palestinian state.

"We can't hide our heads in the sand," he told Israel's Channel 2.

According to media reports, Sharon is working out a final-status plan that includes a buffer strip along the Jordan Valley border, as well as a 6.2-mile band along the boundary between the West Bank and Israel proper.