News Analysis: Showdown for Israel on the peace process

JERUSALEM — With the United States pressing for progress in the peace process, the Israeli government is about to face a moment of truth.

Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu present his government's plan for a redeployment from the West Bank, as U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expects, when they meet next week?

Or will he merely submit his Cabinet's broad thinking on Israel's security interests in a permanent-status settlement — as he told his ministers earlier this week?

The apparent incongruity between Netanyahu's dialogue with Albright and his discussions with the Cabinet is jarring.

Netanyahu and Albright began their current round of talks — which took place against a backdrop of strained relations between Washington and Jerusalem — with two tough sessions in Paris last Friday and Saturday night.

Between those meetings, Albright met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in Geneva.

In public comments, Albright made it clear she was not endorsing the Palestinian demand for a redeployment that would remove Israeli troops from another one-third of the West Bank.

But at the same time, her aides said, she reported Israeli suggestions of a pullback totaling 6 percent to 8 percent would not be satisfactory.

Nor would the White House be prepared to accept Netanyahu's contention that the proposed second redeployment would be the last such pullback by Israel until a permanent-status accord is finalized.

The Americans, like the Palestinians, have welcomed Israel's proposal to accelerate final-status talks. But they do not accept Israel's argument that a third redeployment, prescribed in the Interim Agreement, be eliminated.

Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Monday he had not "discussed percentages" with Albright. But, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, he made clear privately that he doubts the United States would accept any transfer that is less than 12 percent of Israeli-controlled territory in the West Bank.

American officials have warned they would not try to convince the Palestinians to accept Israel's proposal if the scope of the redeployment is too little.

Israeli Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani said this week he had no doubt American pressure on Israel is growing.

Netanyahu's meeting next week with Albright "is not for drinking a cup of coffee together," said Kahalani, of The Third Way Party. "I imagine the next meeting is to receive an Israeli plan."

But the Netanyahu government may not be able to meet American desires for progress by the end of the year.

The premier's aides said in Paris, and repeated in Jerusalem, that the Cabinet's timetable for preparing its redeployment proposal does not necessarily dovetail with Albright's scheduling.

At a news conference in Eilat on Tuesday, Netanyahu said Israel would not allow any external pressure to determine the government's decision on redeployments.

Netanyahu's Cabinet approved a conditional redeployment last week — pending the Palestinian Authority's agreement to begin accelerated final-status talks and to fulfill its commitments under the Oslo Accords, including increased security cooperation to combat terrorism.

But the Cabinet decision did not specify the extent of the redeployment. Under the terms of the decision, the ministers are to address the broad security issues of a final-status settlement first and determine the details of the pullback later.

National Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon, a member of the ministerial committee set up last week to craft the proposals, has developed detailed maps providing for Israeli annexation of two relatively thick swaths of territory that would serve as buffers between the West Bank and Jordan as well as along the pre-1967 border between Israel and the West Bank.

Despite his hawkish mapmaking, Sharon has been sounding a moderate tone on the interim redeployment.

What is important above all, he said, is to achieve "strategic coordination" with the United States over Israel's long-term security interests in the West Bank. Once that is in place, Sharon argued, Israel could afford to be generous in the second redeployment and need not rule out a third redeployment, as prescribed by the 1995 Interim Agreement.

Under the Interim Agreement, Israel was to carry out three redeployments in the West Bank by mid-1998.

The first phase, rejected in March by the Palestinians because Israel would relinquish about 2 percent of the West Bank territory, was never implemented.

The Cabinet is scheduled to discuss proposals that Netanyahu presumably could bring to his Dec. 17 meeting with Albright in Paris. But sharp divisions within the Cabinet make an agreement on any concrete proposal doubtful.

Hardliners in the Cabinet have said openly they hope last week's decision-in-principle to offer a redeployment will remain a dead letter.

Transport Minister Yitzhak Levy, of the National Religious Party, objected strenuously to the idea that Israel present specific proposals for the interim redeployment and the permanent-status settlement "in accordance with the secretary of state's timetable, when we have not held serious discussions on these basic questions for 30 years."

Foreign Minister David Levy warned the Cabinet that the Clinton administration wants a credible, sizable redeployment now, not mere words about future security guidelines.

Levy reportedly brushed aside Netanyahu's protestations that Albright had not pressured him.

The foreign minister suggested it is time for Israel to confront reality and decide whether it wishes to cooperate in the initiative or to reject it.

Political observers here, impressed by the vehemence of Levy's remarks, quickly linked the foreign minister's performance to coalition rumblings, speculating that Levy and his Gesher faction may be contemplating bolting from the government.

Yisrael Ba'Aliyah leader Natan Sharansky also warned that he would not stand by passively if the government brought about the effective collapse of the peace process. Sharansky made it clear that his Russian immigrant constituency wants to see the process move forward.

Given the discord in the Cabinet, some observers were suggesting this week that Albright's unexpectedly vigorous involvement — she in effect summoned Netanyahu and Arafat back to Europe next week to meet with her again — has hastened the government's "moment of truth."

While cynics viewed the Cabinet decision to agree to a redeployment as meaningless, other observers saw it as postponing an inevitable showdown between hardliners and moderates, who genuinely want to offer a meaningful redeployment and thereby attempt to put the peace process back on track.

Now, with a sudden sense that Albright is "breathing down Israel's neck," the moment of truth for the Netanyahu government seems much more real and imminent.