Peres expected to use lull to speed up peace process Palestinians to be given 5 more West Bank cities

November 16, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Shimon Peres, formally asked last night to form his own government, is expected to try to accelerate the peace process as the nation regroups after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 12 days ago.

Already, as acting prime minister, Mr. Peres has set the tone by speeding the Israeli troop withdrawal from Jenin and promising that the withdrawal from five other West Bank cities will be finished by Christmas.

Mr. Peres will try to take advantage of the shock waves from Mr. Rabin's assassination Nov. 4. Public support for the peace process swelled suddenly after the killing. And the right-wing opposition is temporarily subdued by charges that its rhetoric incited the violence.

Mr. Peres may have a grace period of a year until the next elections in which his government will be relatively safe from the no-confidence votes that repeatedly threatened to topple the government of Mr. Rabin.

The army pullout from Jenin on Monday showed the changed political landscape. There were no demonstrators on the scene to complain that Israel was surrendering land given the Jews by God.

"Would this quiet have been maintained a week ago? Undoubtedly not," observed the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot. "There would have been turbulent demonstrations, and perhaps even more. But the murder brought silence and restraint as if each person said, 'This is the peace Rabin fought for. His memory obliges us to allow it a fair test.' "

Mr. Peres will wave the banner of completing the dream of the fallen Mr. Rabin, whose pursuit of peace is more popular in death than it was in his life. The irony is, the dreams were mostly those of Mr. Peres; he had to persuade the skeptical Mr. Rabin to take this path.

Mr. Peres, 72, has signaled that he does not intend to head a caretaker government, nor to be preoccupied with the national election to be held before next November. "To bring peace is still more important than to win elections," Mr. Peres said this week.

Advisers say he is hoping he can somehow resolve the impasse and make peace with Syria, thus entering the election heading a government at peace with the Palestinians and all its immediate neighbors for the first time in modern Israel's history.

He will go forward on withdrawal from the West Bank, and encourage the Palestinians to hold their own elections promptly and set up a stable government.

"Peres wants to push the Palestinians and push the Syrians," said Eli Dayan, deputy foreign minister. "If we can bring the Israeli people a good agreement with Syria, I think they will support it. We will win the next election."

Final negotiations with the Palestinians, to hammer out a "permanent solution" of such difficult problems as the sovereignty of Jerusalem, borders of Palestinian control, and refugees, is scheduled to begin May 4. Talks are supposed to last three years, but some in the Peres camp are eyeing an earlier agreement.

"I suggest having a permanent solution, or at least a document of principles, as soon as possible," said Yossi Beilin, economics minister and a close adviser to Mr. Peres on the peace process.

Although he suggested the possibility of separate Palestinian and Israeli administrations in the city, Mr. Beilin said: "We will never be ready to redivide Jerusalem or to give up sovereignty over Jerusalem."

Last night, President Ezer Weizman formally asked Mr. Peres, now technically the interim prime minister, to form a new government within 21 days. The opposition parties, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party chairman, supported the move as a gesture of national solidarity.

"I will make every effort to set up a government that will increase peace with our neighbors and among ourselves," Mr. Peres promised. He is expected to form his government by early next week. The coalition likely will rest on the same 63 votes in the 120-member Knesset as did Mr. Rabin's.

But that slim majority will be somewhat more solid. Several maverick Labor Party members are no longer threatening to bolt the party. And the religious parties, while not joining the coalition, reportedly have assured Mr. Peres that they will not vote to bring down the government in the wake of this national tragedy.

Some advisers have urged Mr. Peres to seize on the public revulsion at the murder to act boldly against the right-wing Jewish settlers. He might, for example, evict the small group of extremist settlers who have refused to leave their isolated homes in Hebron.

But Mr. Peres is unlikely to do that, say those close to him, out of fear that such an action would renew the divisiveness and end the talk of unity in the nation.

He might, however, heed calls by some observers, including the minister of education, Amnon Rubenstein, to put curbs on religious schools and yeshivas, which are financed by the state but are subject to few controls.

Yigal Amir, the confessed killer of Mr. Rabin, was a star pupil in the religious schools. He reportedly debated with fellow pupils whether it was religiously permissible to kill the prime minister.

Evidence of the gulf between the mourning public and the religious community was the arrest yesterday of two yeshiva students at Mr. Rabin's grave in Jerusalem. They were charged with spitting and attempting to urinate on the grave, which had been heaped with flowers by other Israelis.

An eighth person was arrested yesterday in connection with Mr. Rabin's death: Margalit Harshefi, 20, a fellow student with Mr. Amir at the Bar Ilan religious university,

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