News Analysis: Compromise plan likely to lead to showdown in Israel

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears headed for a showdown with his coalition — yet again.

The likelihood of a confrontation became apparent this week when Israeli officials confirmed that Israel had presented the United States with a compromise proposal for further Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.

News of Netanyahu's proposed withdrawal plan came on the eve of U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross' visit to the region.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai arrived in Florida on Wednesday to discuss the Israeli proposal with Ross, who was slated to leave for Israel that night.

Observers believe the plan, which was first presented to Washington on March 12, was leaked to the New York Times to put pressure on Netanyahu to live up to his proposals. It was first revealed publicly in Wednesday's Times.

The latest developments seem to inject new life into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that have been virtually dead for months.

But Netanyahu remains in the dilemma he has faced every time he has sought to move the process forward: how to respond to international pressure to keep the peace process alive, while simultaneously reassuring his hard-line supporters and Cabinet members that he's not going to give away the shop.

It's also not yet clear how the Palestinians will respond to the compromise proposal.

Netanyahu's plan reportedly offers a 10 or 11 percent further redeployment instead of the 13.1 percent that the United States is said to be seeking.

It also gives the Palestinian Authority smaller, contiguous tracts of West Bank lands instead of larger, disconnected ones.

The premier is believed to be willing to agree to a double-digit redeployment if he can convince Washington to agree that there be no more redeployments until a permanent agreement with the Palestinians is reached.

Amid the reports of Netanyahu's planned double-digit offer, some hardliners are already drawing up battle plans to bring down the government with a no-confidence motion.

The Knesset's hard-line, 17-member Land of Israel bloc has vowed to oppose anything larger than a 9 percent withdrawal.

The head of the faction, Gesher Knesset member Michael Kleiner, has said the group would get enough support to bring down a "government that portrays itself as a national one but gives up hundreds of kilometers of homeland territory."

In an effort to avoid a no-confidence motion, Netanyahu plans to present his redeployment plan next week during the Knesset's Passover recess, according to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

Netanyahu's plan, discussed with U.S. officials in two telephone calls and in the March 12 letter, is viewed in part as an effort to head off the reported American proposal, which links a phased 13.1 percent Israeli withdrawal to specific steps by the Palestinian Authority to live up to its security commitments.

U.S. officials have been considering whether to go public with the plan and to openly criticize either side that rejects the proposal.

On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet, displaying rare unanimity, rejected the reported U.S. plan, saying it was "damaging to the security interests" of the Jewish state.

According to some observers, the Palestinians were willing to accept the American plan only because they knew of Israel's opposition.

It remains unclear how they would react to the reported Israeli initiative, which addresses at least one Palestinian concern — the ability to have under its control a whole piece of the West Bank, rather than isolated islands of self-rule.

Ross' visit, while announced earlier, was only scheduled in response to the Netanyahu initiative, according to Israeli officials, suggesting that the Clinton administration was taking the plan seriously.

By Monday, both Washington and Jerusalem were desperately moving to avert an open confrontation on the eve of Ross' scheduled visit to Israel.

Addressing the United Jewish Appeal's Young Leadership Conference in Washington, Vice President Al Gore said Israel has the right to determine its own peace and security.

Ross, who also spoke at the UJA gathering, said he was going to Israel to "finalize" American ideas to revive the dormant peace talks. But Ross also stressed that there would not be any imposed solution.

Netanyahu has been hoping that Clinton would back down in the face of a major confrontation with Israel.

This outcome has been contingent, above all, on Jerusalem's ability to rally all or most of the American Jewish community and the Republican-dominated Congress to its cause.

One sign of unqualified support for the Netanyahu government came this week from the leader of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

"These latest developments are so troubling because they threaten to undo so much good and send us down a path from which it will be difficult to return," Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said in an address to the UJA conference Tuesday.

"The State Department is now veering toward an approach that has never worked in the past and in fact has only been counterproductive," Kohr said. "Their idea of promulgating a so-called American plan and then using pressure tactics to try to coerce Israel into accepting it has been tried repeatedly and has never worked."

While the Clinton administration had not yet made a decision on whether to go ahead with its own plan, it was apparently startled by the intensity of Israel's reaction — and especially by Netanyahu's apparent intention to rally all of Israel's traditional friends in Washington and across the country in order to fight the White House over the plan.

Israeli diplomats, in recent weeks, have been busily briefing congressional leaders and Jewish organizational leaders on the government's position.

Several ministers have been dispatched to the United States to bolster the effort to win over political and public opinion.

Mordechai, who is widely seen as the key moderate in the Cabinet, went on record Monday — just days before his arrival in the United States — as staunchly opposing the 13.1 percent proposal.

"It is not acceptable to me," declared Mordechai, thereby scotching any speculation of discord between him and Netanyahu over the government's position on the peace process.

Mordechai would prefer that the international community focus on helping Israel extricate its forces from southern Lebanon.

Israeli officials have recently voiced their support of U.N. Security Council Resolution 425 — which was issued 20 years ago and called for an Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon — on the condition that the Lebanese government step in and maintain peace in the region.

Mordechai won support in principle for this initiative from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who met with Israeli leaders Tuesday after visiting Lebanon and Syria.

And the defense minister hopes to garner support from Washington.

But some observers believe that Israel's focus on Lebanon was merely an attempt to deflect attention from the West Bank redeployments.

But even if they prove serious, Lebanon does not appear eager to accept the plan.

"Israel wants us to be accountable toward Israel. We cannot do that," Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri said Wednesday.