Imagine what startling, headline-grabbing news it would be if Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the most right-wing government in Israeli history, offered Yasser Arafat a final settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that embraced the principles of (1) territorial compromise, i.e., giving up major portions of the holy "Land of Israel," (2) abandoning Jewish settlements, and (3) tacit acceptance of a Palestinian state?
Well, it happened. And if you rely on the national media of the United States for your news, you probably would have missed it. The Los Angeles Times reported it, but the New York Times did not, nor did The Washington Post. Nor did NBC, CBS or ABC. Nor the newsmagazines. Newsweek satisfied itself by reporting Arafat's rejection of the plan. The Wall Street Journal gave it two sentences -- and got the story wrong.
Yet the story was hardly obscure. It broke on the front page of the Israeli daily, Haaretz, on May 29. Indeed, Haaretz published a map of the final territorial settlement that Netanyahu's government had in mind. It is not an official map but a reconstruction (by Haaretz defense editor Ze'ev Schiff) based on the principles for a "final settlement" enunciated at a meeting of Netanyahu's inner "security" cabinet and deliberately leaked to the press.
Netanyahu calls the plan "Allon-plus," referring to the plan of Labor Party luminary Yigal Allon, who in 1968 proposed that Israel give back to the Arabs most of the West Bank except for the Jordan Valley (nearly uninhabited desert that Israel needs to defend against land attack from the east).
Netanyahu's plan, coming 30 years later, is more generous to Israel (hence the "plus"). It has Israel absorbing some additional territory, mostly suburbs established in the intervening decades around Jerusalem and near Tel Aviv. Allon in '68 would have kept about one-third of the West Bank. Netanyahu would keep just over 50 percent.
Some critics, pointing to these percentages, say the plan is not forthcoming enough. But they miss the point, the momentousness of the principles conceded here by Likud. Likud, after all, is the "Land of Israel" party, the party whose election was greeted in the United States with teeth-gnashing anguish as the ascendancy of religious-nationalist "Greater Israel" fanaticism.
Even before Netanyahu's election, I argued that this view was a compound of nonsense and disinformation. The Netanyahu plan now proves the point. With it, Likud does the unthinkable. It lays out a territorial compromise. It leaves some Jewish settlements behind Palestinian lines, ensuring that they will eventually be razed. And it omits any mention of Likud's ritual opposition to a Palestinian state, a clear signal that it is prepared to concede this principle too. And this is its opening negotiating position!
The map is also a signal to the new Labor Party leader, Ehud Barak, that the differences between the Likud moderates (like Netanyahu) and Labor moderates (like Barak) are narrowing to insignificance. The map is a not-so-subtle invitation to Barak to form a coalition government. My bet is that by summer's end Netanyahu will have shed his far-right parties and be leading a national unity government of the center.
By any measure, this is momentous news. Yet it was greeted with silence in the West and with abuse by the Palestinians. The choicest remark was issued by the Palestinian Authority's finance minister, who said it smacked of Nazi ideology and a belief in Lebensraum -- the Nazi touch being by now a staple of Palestinian discourse.
Why was "Allon-plus" overlooked here? In part, it was a journalistic failure. In part too, however, it was a failure of Netanyahu's public diplomacy. Netanyahu has the reputation of a man with much PR skill and no strategic vision. On the contrary. This plan shows a man who knows where he wants to go but is amazingly clumsy in getting the political credit -- and consequent diplomatic backing -- for the enormous concessions he is willing to make to get there.
This plan should not have been leaked. It should have been unveiled at the podium of the U.N. General Assembly. Or before a joint session of Congress.
No matter. The map is out. (You can find it on Haaretz's Web site www.haaretz.co.il) And the game is on: We have now entered the final stage of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. All the current hemming and hawing -- the squawks and squabbles over such issues as Har Homa or the Gaza Airport -- are sideshows and setups as each side jockeys for position in final status negotiations.
Arafat has proclaimed his preferred map a million times: all of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem. Netanyahu is now -- finally -- unveiling Israel's. The battle lines have, literally, been drawn. Given the fact that the result will be either a final peace or Armageddon, we might want to take notice.