- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2002

With only days left to the campaign, it would appear that Israeli Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has failed to transform the Nov. 28 Likud primaries into a referendum on a Palestinian state. A combination of sheer hatred and distrust for Mr. Netanyahu among many of the activists who supported his successful 1996 campaign for the premiership, combined with what amounts to a media boycott of the Palestinian state issue has crippled the former prime minister's strategy.

While Mr. Netanyahu presents the Hebron Agreement and Wye Accords as precedent-setting agreements, achieved in a strenuous uphill battle against all the odds, that formalized the principle of reciprocity via timetables, his former supporters see them as deals in which Mr. Netanyahu gave Yasser Arafat additional territory (despite a signed letter he deposited with Chabad before the election) in return for the reiteration of Palestinian promises that would never be honored. The withdrawal from most of Hebron, with the abandonment of the strategic high ground of Abu Sneinah that ultimately put the Jewish community there under the watchful eye of Palestinian snipers, strikes a particularly sensitive nerve.

As the former supporters see it, Mr. Netanyahu's betrayal began within months of his May 29 victory, when he dropped all preconditions and met with Mr. Arafat at the Erez Crossing in the Gaza Strip on Sept. 4, 1996. Mr. Netanyahu's core of activists in 1996 were the same people who stood on the street corners in the long and hard campaign against Oslo that began in 1993. When Mr. Netanyahu carried out withdrawals, the media ridiculed the activists for their misplaced loyalty. Mr. Netanyahu's supporters took his actions as a personal affront and embarrassment. "Netanyahu is saying what I want to hear now," said a former supporter, "but will he have the backbone to deliver when the going gets tough?" Ariel Sharon also ran hot-and-cold on principles during his term. After a series of pronouncements to the contrary, he sent his foreign minister to negotiate with Mr. Arafat under fire. Mr. Sharon withdrew security forces under various schemes that were doomed to failure and then declined to make good on promises to return them to such critical spots as Abu Sneinah "with the first shot" when the programs failed. Israel also radically downgraded its expectations from the Palestinians with a new "cocked gun" policy: Notwithstanding a long series of Oslo commitments, the Palestinians weren't expected to disarm the terrorists and illegal militias a cease-fire would suffice.

But Mr. Sharon's national unity government successfully deflected criticism for these moves from Mr. Sharon to his senior Labor Party partners Shimon Peres and Binyamin Ben Eliezer, who served respectively as foreign minister and defense minister.

Mr. Sharon wasn't blamed last week when a suicide bomber exploited the security vacuum created by the "Bethlehem First"withdrawal of IDF forces to murder 11 in Jerusalem the public blamed Mr. Ben Eliezer.

Mr. Netanyahu's efforts to add depth to discourse over the significance of a Palestinian state have also failed miserably, thanks to what amounts to a boycott of the subject by the Israeli media. The crucial ramifications of the fundamental truth that a sovereign Palestinian state would continue to be a sovereign state even if it violated the agreements under which it came into existence have yet to find their way into the voters' consciousness.

Israel may get bad press now, Mr. Netanyahu warns, when the IDF goes into Ramallah or closes down the Gaza airport, but it's not an international incident. The story is completely different, the stakes considerably higher, in the case of a sovereign state of Palestine, protected by defense treaties with Israel's enemies and supported by scores of nations willing to break any blockade or other restrictions that the Jewish state tries to impose on the terror state.

Mr. Sharon's Achilles' heel might have been the U.S.-led "Road Map to peace," but most voters are either unaware of the details of the program or view it as yet another of a myriad of long-forgotten plans that were floated over the last few years. Media coverage and analysis of the Road Map is almost nonexistent.

Mr. Sharon says that there are some details in the Road Map that require revision. He can be expected to try, for example, to change the provision that Israel forfeits its right to self-defense. But Mr. Sharon has indicated that he accepts the principles of the Road Map. And a key element to the plan is the unilateral creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in the second half of 2003, before final status issues such as Jerusalem, final borders and the Palestinian refugee problem are resolved.

Some of Mr. Sharon's supporters argue that the Palestinians won't fulfill the few obligations they have in the stages leading to the establishment of a state, ignoring that under the best of conditions, Israel will have to rely on America breaking the pattern it has followed since the start of Oslo of giving the Palestinians a passing grade come-what-may when it served American interests.

Other Likudniks take comfort in the thought that Mr. Sharon could never get his Cabinet to approve the Road Map, so the issue is moot. But Mr. Sharon has given no indication that he plans to ever discuss Israel's response to the Road Map in his Cabinet. Moreover, Mr. Sharon says he will form a national unity government with the Labor Party after the elections. Approval of the Road Map would be just the thing to justify Labor Party Chairman Amram Mitzna's joining the government.

Will Mr. Netanyahu, who was once considered Mr. Communicator second-to-none, succeed in getting his message through despite a media boycott? Will Likudniks heed his plea to vote for the right person rather than the nice person? We'll find this out tomorrow night, when the Likud picks its candidate for prime minister.

Aaron Lerner is the director of Independent Media Review & Analysis.

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