Unhelpful in Hebron

Just when all parties to the Palestinian autonomy talks had expressed renewed determination to meet this spring's target date, the Israeli Cabinet roiled the waters. It apparently did not make any major change in policy or take any operational steps, but it affirmed its support in principle for letting Jews resettle the occupied Arab city of Hebron -- in contrast with past West Bank settlement confined in practice to rural land. Announcement of the decision, whether finally implemented or not, can only complicate the already difficult autonomy negotiations involving Israel, Egypt, and the United States.

Domestic politics may have dictated the Cabinet's move. A Palestine Liberation Organization faction had claimed responsibility for the killing of a Jewish student in Hebron. The Cabinet was called upon for the kind of response represented by resettlement of Jews within the city.

But even some Israeli press comment reportedly warned of possible damage to the peace talks that are seeking some form of self-administration for Palestinians in the lands now occupied by Israel. President Carter's Mideast envoy, Sol Linowitz, came back from a recent visit to the negotiations with word of a substantial body of agreement and a movement beyond technical matters to some of the major questions to be resolved. The negotiators are said to believe they are at a point where progress is better obtained through hard work in private without publicly specifying each step on the way to presenting a complete package.

The whole Middle East situation, with its ramifications for energy and security, will remain worse than need be until the Palestinian matter is resolved with justice. Out of the limelight though the negotiatiors may prefer to be, their effort must not be forgotten -- or undermined by further complications such as the recent Israeli Cabinet decision on Hebron.

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