Israeli opposition hints at new land-for-peace bid

Israel's opposition leaders are hinting at a new bid to swap captured Arab land for peace if they win next Monday's national election. The message has not been lost on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the trickly Jordan River - the centerpiece in opposition designs for a new peace effort with the area's former ruler, King Hussein of Jordan.

Small groups of Jewish settlers have recently set up free-lance outposts in a bid to create facts on the ground on the West Bank before election day. And Israel's incumbent right-wing government has, similarly, stepped up approval or inauguration of new settlements as the balloting draws nearer.

Still, there is widening skepticism here over the degree to which the election will unblock the stalemated Israeli-Arab peace process, even if the opposition Labor Party wins.

The principal issue is the future of the West Bank, lost by Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war. The incumbent Likud coalition, arguing that the area belongs to the Jewish state by biblical birthright, has overseen the bulk of Israel's concerted settlement drive there since the war.

The Labor Party, out of power now for seven years after dominating Israeli politics for decades, favors trying to swap part of the West Bank for a formal peace with its former owners.

But abiding doubts over prospects for change - both on the West Bank and inside Israel - derive from a host of political factors:

* Although Israel's economic crisis has swelled the ranks of opponents of West Bank settlement, there is no sign of anything resembling a consensus here that the territory should be handed back to Jordan.

This helps explain Labor's generally sotto voce approach to proclaiming its post-electoral intentions. It also helps explain the government's confidently high-profile acceleration in recent days of West Bank settlement activity. Labor went so far as to protest that this was unfair ''election propaganda.'' The country's nonpartisan Central Elections Committee conceded the point but declined to order a halt to planned settlement dedications before election day.

Similarly, even Labor has stopped short of suggesting that existing settlements should be dismantled as part of a peace accord with King Hussein. Instead, the tack has been to concentrate on the need to slash official funding for such activity.

Also, both Labor and Likud so far agree that the area's historical centerpiece - the disputed holy city of Jerusalem - must remain wholly Israeli.

And while open to ''territorial compromise,'' Labor seems intent to continue Israel's hold on two West Bank ''border'' areas. These are the flat, arid Jordan River Valley bordering Hussein's post-1967 kingdom and the unmarked ''green line'' between the West Bank and Israel's pre-1967 reaches.

* Jordan, though hopeful of a Labor victory and keenly interested to see just what land a new government would offer for peace, has so far shown itself either unwilling or politically unable to roll back its demand for a virtually full return of the West Bank and for some form of Arab sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, which ended up split into Jewish and Arab halves after the first Mideast war in 1948, fell wholly into Israeli hands in 1967.

* A recent opinion poll shows slippage in Labor's early landslide-scale campaign lead. Although the poll still suggests a Labor victory, it would not be of sufficient proportions to constitute anything like a mandate for daring diplomacy after the elections.

Colleagues of Labor's prime ministerial candidate, Shimon Peres, say his cautious decisionmaking style also might work against any drastic Israeli concessions on West Bank issues unless Labor wins a convincing triumph at the polls.

Another factor, under Israel's proportional electoral setup, is how the voters rank a handful of much smaller parties with which either Labor or Likud will almost surely have to deal in forming a workable government coalition.

Two of these parties, in particular, may prove crucial.

The first, grouping rigidly observant and politically conservative Jews, is called Tehiya, and has been picking up ground in recent polls. The other is the new party of more dovish former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman. His group may also do well enough to influence post-election bargaining, although it lost some ground in the most recently published independent opinion poll.

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