When you stop and think about it, the fact that the Israeli parliament voted 87 to 17 to carry out the Hebron withdrawal and further re-de-ploy-ments in the West Bank is an amazing political event. That is a 5-to-1 margin. Israelis don't agree on anything by 5 to 1. They couldn't agree that the sun rises in the east by 5 to 1.
The fact that their lawmakers voted to get out of Hebron by that margin - despite a Likud government that came into office only seven months ago looking to avoid such a deal - underscores the degree to which this process is now being driven in Israel by a silent majority that wants to keep Oslo moving forward. This agreement was pushed from the bottom up, not the top down. But that sends an important message to the Arabs: Israel is not divided 50-50 on the peace process. There's now a solid center committed to Oslo and the principle of trading land for peace in the West Bank.The only question in Israel now is how much land, and the only ones who can answer that question are the Arabs, by making clear how much peace.
Interestingly, Israelis have downgraded their expectations even on the amount of peace. It has been a terrible year for Israel. Assassination, suicide bombs, street fights with Palestinian police over the Jerusalem tunnel. Yet the Israeli parliament overwhelmingly approved this deal. It's because the Israeli public is no longer seeking an epic, romantic peace but rather the peace of let-me-alone. It is seeking the lowest common denominator peace. It's the peace that says: "Just give me real security, basic trade, tourism and formal diplomatic relations, and I'll get out of your hair and you get out of mine."
But here's the question: Can the Arabs provide even that lowest common denominator peace? Now that the Israeli public has forced a consensus on land for peace from the bottom up, the Arabs are going to have to force a consensus on this issue in their countries from the top down. Because Yasser Arafat, King Hussein and Hosni Mubarak will not be able to meet their minimum obligations vis-a-vis Israel - whether it's to really normalize relations or to really crack down on Palestinian terrorists - unless they start to nurture a domestic constituency for the relationship with Israel.
"For years now the Arabs who made peace with Israel have wanted the fruits of peace without the obligations of peace and without the relationships that peace mandated," said Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen. "As long as Israel seemed divided and ambivalent on the land for peace question, Arab leaders had an excuse for not going ahead with all the relations. But with Israel now clearly committed to trading land for peace on the West Bank, the Arab leaders will have to put up or shut up.
"In the past, they moved ahead with Israel by shutting up their people. But I don't think they can move ahead, even on the minimum demands Israel wants, without putting up their people - without involving them more in this process. It will start with the business community, but it will have to go well beyond that to the intelligentsia, media and academia."
The Arabs should notice something here. Netanyahu has done a huge act of Sadat-like significance, but neither the Israeli press nor world press has given him Sadat-like heroic accolades. Why not? Because both Sadat and Netanyahu acted out of necessity, but Sadat transformed necessity into an opportunity for statesmanship and that gave him his emotional force. Netanyahu, in contrast, has portrayed his actions as they-made-me-do-it - the previous government, public opinion, the Amer-i-cans made me do it. The Israeli people still seem in control, and that's the Arabs' opportunity.
Will the Arabs step up to it, or is the old Arab politics still the only Arab politics?
New York Times News Service