Going through some old issues of The Weekly Standard magazine on a recent rainy day, the Monitor was struck by a November 9, 1998 cover story from the acclaimed columnist Charles Krauthammer that fairly shouted Crystal Ball.
Krauthammer began the piece, titled “The Coming Palestinian State,” with a defense of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance at the Wye River summit (this was, of course, Netanyahu’s first go-round in the prime minister’s chair), a performance that had been derided by critics on both the left and the right.
Netanyahu, Krauthammer pointed out, had by the time of his election in 1996 come to accept Oslo as a fait accompli; had in fact campaigned not on a platform of abrogating the treaty but of insisting on Palestinian compliance and reciprocity.
“The point,” argued Krauthammer, “is that Netanyahu never was a zealot. He has long believed that a solution to the Palestinian question would require some territorial compromise. He was never a ‘Land of Israel’ ideologue. He would, of course, have preferred to hold on to every inch for security reasons. But he understands realities.”
Netanyahu’s primary goals were to halt the one-sided nature of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and to somehow safely steer the country through – if not completely around – the interim territorial withdrawals agreed to by the previous Israeli government.
Yasir Arafat, encouraged by former prime minister Shimon Peres, had been under the impression that even before the start of the “final status” negotiations Israel would hand over approximately a third of the disputed land in each of three redeployments – in effect leaving Israel with no bargaining chips just as the key issues of East Jerusalem and Palestinian statehood were placed on the table.
“Netanyahu’s entire strategy for the last two years,” Krauthammer wrote, “undertaken at huge diplomatic and personal political cost, has been to reduce Arafat’s expectations…. On this he won. Wye ratifies the victory. Arafat had 27 percent of the territories when Netanyahu came to power. Wye gives him 13 percent more. Oslo’s interim phase will end with Israel having given up 40 percent of the land.
“From the Israeli point of view, this is an extraordinary achievement. It leaves Israel with a serious chunk of territory on the West Bank to bargain with.”
It is when he turned his attention to what Arafat received at Wye that Krauthammer’s tone took a dark turn. That additional 13 percent of land promised to Arafat, he noted, was crucial not so much for its size as for the isolated pockets of Palestinian-controlled territory that would now be linked. And with Gaza and the West Bank connected by two special roads, the land under Arafat’s jurisdiction suddenly appeared more than ever like a real state.
And the biggest prize of all, he added, was that President Clinton would shortly travel to Gaza to formally address a large conclave of Palestinians – a visit ostensibly tied to an understanding that Arafat would convene the Palestine National Council for the purpose of excising the anti-Israel clauses in the PNC charter, though it was always unclear how serious the Palestinians were about the undertaking.
What was clear, wrote Krauthammer, “is that an American president will come to Palestine to bless its Congress, address a Palestinian festival celebrating coming independence, and launch it on that road.”
A road, it should be said, that Clinton fully supported. Krauthammer made the point, downplayed or ignored by Jews who loved to contrast Clinton so favorably with the first President Bush, that at the 1991 Madrid peace talks the Bush administration “explicitly declared that it would not support a Palestinian state.”
No such declarations were ever heard from Clinton.
In the end, Krauthammer feared, Wye would be seen to have set the groundwork for the creation of a Palestinian state and the outbreak of war. It was only a matter of time before one side or the other would be forced, most likely by cataclysmic events, to surrender its chief claims.
“That,” he concluded, “is the crisis waiting to happen. For now, Wye is the bridge to that crisis, the last agreement between Israel and the Palestinians we are likely to see before the fateful showdown.”