Bethlehem, occupied West Bank — It is getting harder and harder for a West Bank Palestinian leader to remain a moderate. This is the complaint of the Christian Palestinian mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, long regarded by the Israeli establishment as the most pragmatic and moderate of the 25 elected West Bank mayors.
And he places the blame on the "hard hand" policy of the ruling Israeli military authorities during the last six months. The authorities, he says, now label him a radical.
Mayor Freij's worries take on special meaning as the incoming Reagan administration in the United States confronts the problem of how to revive the moribund talks between Egypt and Israel on self-rule for the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a transition to the end of Israeli occupation.
The argument is that without Palestinian leaders willing to participate in self-rule, the concept becomes pointless.
Mr. Freij, a former businessman elected mayor in 1972, is a political pragmatist who has been attacked by leftists of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) for his friendships with Israeli Labor Party leaders, his contacts with European and US diplomats, and his good relations with Jordan.
But he is also courted by the PLO establishment, including PLO leader Yasser Arafat, for these very reasons. His new city hall, a testimony to his shrewdness, was built with money raised from both the PLO and the Israelis.
Mayor Freij says moderate leaders such as himself now are being squeezed from two sides. On the one hand, it is harder to preach moderation to the young and the poor who, he says, are being further radicalized by the tactics of the Israeli hardhand policy. These include:
* Expulsions of elected mayors such as Muhammad Milhem of Halhul and Fahd Kawasmeh of Hebron, now sitting inside the United Nations building in New York City. Mayor Freij and one other mayor made a personal appeal (in vain) to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for their return, the first time West Bank mayors had met the Israeli leader.
* Crackdowns on activism at West Bank universities.
* Expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, up to 68 from 24 in 1977.
* Restrictions on foreign press coverage of demonstrations on the West Bank. When such events occur, the area now can be declared closed to the press, members of which then will have to be accompanied by military representatives.
But pressure now is coming from another angle, says Mayor Freij. Leaders like himself who call publicly and at some risk for Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel, along with Palestinian self-determination, now are labeled radical by occupation authorities. This, he says, is because they will not endorse the Begin government's concept of self-rule, which they consider so narrow as to approximate occupation.
"This administration won't accept any criticism," Mr. Freij complains. "If I say that the only realistic solution to our problem is to involve the PLO in negotiations, they don't like it, so they call me radical. If I were radical I wouldn't have met with Begin."
Israeli press reports, confirmed by the Monitor's own sources, say that the Israeli defense establishment is anxious to weaken the existing West Bank political framework, because even pro-Jordanian moderates there will not settle for less than return of nearly all of the West Bank -- whether to Jordan or the PLO.
The Begin government has publicly opposed returning sovereignty over any of the West Bank to the Arabs as an unacceptable security risk.
Along these lines, Mayor Freij says, the Israeli military authorities are trying to weaken his authority by encouraging formation of an appointed league of villages around Bethlehem, whose local heads would exercise powers normally reserved for the elected mayors. Such a league has already been established in the Hebron area.
The Bethlehem mayor also expects that the Israelis may try to remove from office the more radical mayors of Nablus and Ramallah who are returning home this week after medical treatment abroad following as-yet-unsolved car bomb attacks on them in June.
Mayor Freij still believes firmly that the elected mayors are the key to any peace settlement with Israel. "We will have to be the bridge between Israel and the PLO. We are very tired of occupation. If we saw any green light at the end of the tunnel we would go to Beirut and tell the PLO, even Milhem and Kawasmeh."