Forty-eight hourse before Anwar Sadat was assassinated, the Israeli Cabinet and the World Zionist Organization were making policy statement in Jerusalem that could turn to be a time bomb for the slain Egyptian president's successor.
At the very time when supporters of moderation and compromise might hope for some Israeli "give" on the West Bank and Palestinian issues to smooth the path for an Egyptian government bereft of the commanding presence of Mr. Sadat, the Israelis and the Zionists find themselves committed more than ever to policies suggestive of the opposite.
Whether the changed circumstances in the wake of Mr. Sadat's murder will push the Israelis in the direction of flexibility remains to be seen.
Some Middle East specialists argue that if the United States had been more successful in getting the Israeli government to be more forthcoming on the issue of Palestinian autonomy, Mr. Sadat would have been less vulnerable to the assassins' bullets. Those same specialists speculate now about what may be needed from both the US and Israel to make it tolerable for his successor to continue to Camp David policy without immediately putting his life at risk.
The policy announcements of Oct. 4 directly affect the future of the occupied West Bank, widely assumed to be the site for the "full autonomy" for Palestinians promised in the Camp David accord. The declarations were by:
The Israeli Cabinet, to the effect that the proposed switch from military to civilian government on the West Bank will in fact fall short of what had originally been hinted. Military government will remain in control of the West Bank, but Israeli civilians will be brought in to take over from middle-ranking military officers in running housing, health, welfare, tax, and industrial programs in the occupied territories.
The World Zionist Organization, that it has plans to increase the number of Jewish settlers on the West Bank by 120,000 over the next four years and to have installed there by the year 2010 a total of over 1 million jewish settlers.
At present, there are between 20,000 and 25,000 Jewish settlers in 85 settlements on the West Bank. Seventy of those 85 settlements have been estabished since Menachem Begin became prime minister. The World Zionist Organization said that it will increase the number of settlements by 12 to 18 over the next four years.
Asked what about the 800,000 Arabs on the West Bank, Matityahu Drobleshead of the World Zionist Organization settlement department, said: "My task is not to deal with the non-Jewish population." That was "somebody else's job."
Simultaneously Israeli Cabinet ministers are talking with growing bluntness to indicate they have no intention of ever allowing a Palestinian state to evolve on the West Bank and making the case that a Palestinian state already exists elsewhere -- in Jordan.
Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was quoted recently in Time magazine as saying: "I believe that the starting point for a solution [to the Palestinian problem] is to establish a Palestinian state in the part of Palestine that was separated from [what was to become] Israel in 1922 and which is now Jordan. Some 80 percent of the population of Jordan is Palestinian.... King Hussein is not a partner in the Camp David talks. I don't mind who takes over Jordan."
Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, addressing the Foreign Policy Association in New York Oct. 6 said: "The irrefutable fact is that Jordan is a Palestinian Arab state in everything but name. It is important to understand the 'Jordan is Palestine' aspect and that the conflict is not, and never was, between Israel and a stateless people.
"Once this is clearly understood, the emotional dimension that evokes problems of conscience in some minds will be removed. If it is perceived in this light, you have, on the one hand, a Palestinian- Jordanian Arab state and Israel on the other, then the problem is reduced to a territorial conflict between these two states."
Mr. Sharon, as defense minister, is responsible for military government on the West Bank. Within a few days of assuming office in August, he halted certain Israeli military practices that have been daily irritants to the Arabs living under Israelis occupation.
The military correspondent of the Jerusalem Post commented at the time: "On reflection, [Mr. Sharon's] desire to make life more tolerable for the inhabitants of the territories could be seen more as a means of perpetuating Israeli rule over these people than as a means of working toward a political solution granting independence."
Of greater political importance than the removal of these irritants are the Israeli authorities' simultaneous tough moves to isolate the Palestinian political leadership in urban areas on the West Bank and in Gaza from their most important contacts elsewhere in the Arab world.
Hitherto these contacts have been with: (1) the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which they have insisted is the only legitimate voice of the Palestinians (now a punishable offense); and (2) with the government of King Hussein of Jordan, which has been the main source of funding for economic programs in West Bank towns. The mayors of these towns are no longer allowed to travel abroad.
The mayors and others who are the targets of these new Israeli restrictions have consistently refused cooperation in any political sense with the Israeli authorities. The latter say the mayors are subject to PLO blackmail, even assassination threats.
At the moment, the israeli government is trying to develop an alternative to urban Palestinians as a possible interlocutor on the question of the future of the West Bank. They are directing their attention (and Israeli funds) to the rural population, which they seem to think can be "bought" away from any concept of Palestinian statehood on the West Bank.
They have had the greatest success to date in the Hebron area. There it is claimed some 70 villages have come together in an association of village leagues under the leadership of a sexagenarian Palestinian Mustafa Dudin. He says his cooperation with the Israelis has provided him with development funds to build 40 miles of road and 24 new schools.
How viable and credible this relationship between the Israelis authorities and the village leagues will prove remains to be seen.
It all seems to be pointing away from the full Palestinian autonomy to which Mr. Sadat was pledged to getting, and Mr. Begin to giving, in the Camp David accords. At the resumed round of autonomy talks last month in Cairo, the Egyptian side welcomed as a "confidence building" step the expected establishment of Israeli civilian government on the West Bank. The Egyptians know they have to be as reassuring as possible to the Israelis if they want the israelis to honor their commitment to complete their withdrawal from Sinai in April -- something which Mr. Sadat gave priority to over the Palestinian issue.
The question now is whether the new Egyptian leadership, seeing where the Israelis seem to be heading since that Cairo meeting, will feel able to maintain that priority and carry on as cooperatively with the Israelis as did Mr. Sadat.