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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Officials Mull Intent Of Israel's New Leader

JERUSALEM -- "The state of Israel is going forth today on a new path," right-wing Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu declared in his election victory speech. "A path of security, a path of peace."


The half of the electorate that voted for the Likud party leader seemed delighted with the new direction, even if the road map to his vision of a new Middle East was none too detailed.


The half that didn't, wondered whether the 46-year-old former commando had set his political compass for the old course of no territorial compromise with the Arabs.


Arab leaders, Western officials and Israeli analysts pored over Netanyahu's Sunday speech, his first since toppling Shimon Peres last Wednesday, to see whether there would be substance behind the rhetoric of a commitment to the U.S.-sponsored peace process.


"What is important," said one Western diplomat close to the peace process, "is what he omitted."


"No mention of the PLO, no mention of Arafat, nothing on Syria and Lebanon. He is signalling that things are going to be different."


Just how different is an open question. Israeli and U.S. analysts do not believe Netanyahu can pull out of the process or go back on the landmark 1993 Oslo accord giving Palestinians limited self-rule. The United States is a guarantor of that agreement and put its political and economic weight behind Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, as a reward for signing it.


Washington wants Israel to implement what it has agreed, but Israeli officials doubt whether the Clinton administration will want to lean too heavily on Netanyahu with a U.S. presidential election less than six months away.


Netanyahu could exploit this to put a brake on the Oslo deal, including the redeployment of Israeli troops from the center of the West Bank town of Hebron, home to hardcore Jewish settlers.


Netanyahu said during his campaign he opposed leaving Hebron. The Hebron withdrawal, scheduled by Peres for late June, will be a litmus test for Likud's commitment to Oslo.


"I don't know whether Netanyahu will be able to square that particular circle," said Mark Heller of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. Ehud Sprinzak, a left-wing political analyst at Hebrew University, was more explicit.


"There is a direct contradiction between Likud policy and the peace process," he said. "There is a Likud commitment to continue settlements and not to consider evacuating them. This stands in total opposition to the peace process because if this had been on the table in Oslo, the Palestinians would never have signed," Sprinzak said.


He said Netanyahu wanted to appear set on the path of peace in public, especially for an American audience. But he doubted how far he would travel.


Some Likud supporters who have come to terms with Peres' legacy advocate doing as little as possible to change the status quo.


Arafat's return to Gaza took Israeli soldiers out of the main centers of population and drew the sting out of the Palestinian uprising. But Israel still controls 70 percent of the land in the West Bank, 40 percent in the Gaza Strip and all access by land, sea and air. All 120 Jewish settlements are intact and the ancient city of Hebron, sacred to Jews and Arabs, is still under Israeli control.