Israel delays pullback premier's woes grow

Arab contacts frozen a week before talks

March 11, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM -- The Palestinians' unexpected refusal to accept Israel's decision on withdrawing from an additional 9.1 percent of the West Bank has thrown the negotiating process into a new crisis, in effect freezing contacts between the two sides only a week before talks on a final settlement were to resume.

The confrontation also added yet another problem to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's deepening pile of political troubles as he left on a two-day trip to Russia.

The planned withdrawal, which Israelis intended to complete this week, is stalled for now.

Officials said it was not possible to withdraw without coordinating the action with the Palestinians, since more than 50 villages and about 200,000 people were involved.

Israeli television reported that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refused two telephone calls from Netanyahu yesterday.

Arafat was apparently stung by what he considered the Israeli leader's failure to reward him for holding back protests over the decision to proceed with a new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

In the evening, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo, a senior lieutenant to Arafat, met in Tel Aviv with U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk, apparently to search for a way out of the impasse.

On the domestic front, Netanyahu left with a rebellion by rightists in parliament temporarily defused. After meeting with him, four of eight members from his coalition who had threatened to vote against him changed their minds over an opposition motion of no confidence.

But a new challenge loomed. Members from Netanyahu's Likud coalition and the opposition Labor Party called for lowering from 80 to 61 the number of votes required in the 120-member Knesset to dismiss the prime minister without dissolving parliament.

A serious threat

Netanyahu was said to view this as a serious threat, since it is assumed that many of the rightists disillusioned with him might be prepared to vote him out if they could keep their own seats.

On the Palestinian side, analysts said Arafat's public rage over the Israeli withdrawal decision reflected what he perceived as Netanyahu's violation of trust.

The analysts said Arafat had worked to prevent a Palestinian explosion after Netanyahu announced plans to build the new Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem, expecting in exchange to gain a decent piece of territory in the ensuing withdrawal.

Arafat then traveled to the United States, where he received a warm welcome.

But immediately on his return home, basking in the sense that he was being treated as an equal partner, the blows fell:

The United States vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the planned construction.

The Palestinian authority was served with an order to close four Palestinian offices in East Jerusalem.

Then the Israeli Cabinet announced the decision on the further withdrawal.

For Netanyahu, the decision to withdraw from another 9.1 percent of the West Bank represented a bitter victory over hard-line members of his Cabinet, which approved it by a vote of only 10-7.

But to Arafat, the hard fact was that most of that land -- amounting to 7 percent of the West Bank -- was already under Palestinian civil authority and was now being transferred to full Palestinian control.

30% transfer

The Palestinians publicly insisted that the transfer should have amounted to 30 percent of the West Bank areas under Israeli control, and privately said they had expected at least 10 percent.

Palestinians also want a say in deciding the scope of this and two other withdrawals mandated by Israel-Palestinian peace agreements.

Israel, with U.S. backing, says the accords allow it to determine the scope of the three pullouts.

Though Arafat's authority among the Palestinians was not in question, he was not likely to back down quickly, at least not while President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was on an official visit to Washington and the U.N. General Assembly was denouncing Israel for its East Jerusalem project.

For the moment, Netanyahu put off the start of the construction, as well as any action to enforce the order to close the Palestinian offices in Jerusalem.

But the rebellious mood among his rightist supporters suggested that he would not be able to delay the actions too long.

Politically impossible

For the same reason, the consensus among Israeli commentators was that it would be politically impossible for him to increase the amount of land to be turned over to the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.

Witnesses said at least 10 Palestinians were injured when 150 soldiers used clubs and guns to beat back 100 Palestinians trying to stop workers opening a road for Jewish settlers in Hebron.

Five Arabs were reported arrested.

Pub Date: 3/11/97

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