Palestinians fear West Bank will stay back-burner issue

Although they cannot vote in Israel, the Palestinians who live on the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River are closely watching the political struggle taking place there.

Many Palestinians feel that whatever government emerges from last month's Israeli election, chances are slim that it will be able to address the explosive issue of the occupation of the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967. They fear the government will be too weak to trade West Bank land for peace with Jordan.

''There were probably three attitudes on the West Bank toward the Israeli election,'' says Sari Nusseibeh, a philosophy instructor at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah.

''There were people who exhibited total apathy. There were people who put too much hope in (the Labor Party), and there were people too dead set against putting any kind of hope in the results.''

In the wake of the election, Dr. Nusseibeh says, ''there is a lot of depression. The general feeling is that nothing dramatic will happen on the West Bank now.''

Dr. Nusseibeh's observations were echoed by other Palestinian professors, journalists, and politicians on the West Bank.

''There will be no answers to the problems for the Israelis and the Palestinians,'' says Bassam Shaka, the deposed mayor of Nablus, the West Bank's largest city.

The two largest Israeli political parties, the left-leaning Labor Party and the incumbent right-wing Likud bloc, have spent weeks negotiating guidelines for a possible ''national unity'' government that would include both parties. One of the sticking points to forming such a government has been these two parties' differences over the West Bank.

Generally, Labor would like to halt the building of settlements in heavily populated Arab areas of the West Bank and would like to tempt Jordan's King Hussein into negotiations over the territory. The Likud has long stated that the West Bank is an integral part of Israel.

On Sunday, Israeli President Chaim Herzog granted Labor leader Shimon Peres another three weeks to try to form a government. But even if a national unity government does emerge, its chief concern would be Israel's economic crisis.

An explosive issue such as the West Bank would probably be relegated to the back burner, a position many Palestinians said they thought was exactly where most Israelis want it to stay.

''The elections proved that the Israeli population is happy with the status quo concerning the occupied territories,'' says Saeb Erakat, director of public relations for An-Najah National University in Nablus. ''The elections were a setback for the (Jordanian) King and for Yasser Arafat (head of the Palestine Liberation Organization).''

Mr. Erakat's assessment of Labor's failure to decisively beat the Likud is even bleaker than Nusseibeh's.

''I think we (the Palestinians) are going down the drain,'' Erakat says flatly.

He cites a controversial recent report by the left-leaning academic, Meron Benvenisti, who wrote that de facto annexation of the West Bank has already occurred. Mr. Benvenisti recommended that the 750,000 Palestinians on the West Bank be extended the same rights - such as voting rights and insurance coverage - as the 25,000 Jewish settlers there enjoy.

Such a recommendation from a well-known Israeli liberal angers Erakat, because it transforms the nature of the discussion on Palestinians.

''I don't see any hope for the future,'' Erakat says. ''They (the Israelis) will be talking about my civil rights instead of my national rights.''

Faisal Husseini, chief of the Arab Studies Society in east Jerusalem, says he did not believe Israel's policy toward the West Bank would change regardless of which of the two largest parties eventually formed a government.

''The Palestinians have a saying about the Likud and Labor,'' he says. ''It is that one of them would like to eat us without cooking and the other would prefer cooking.''

Mr. Husseini and other Palestinians emphasize that it was Labor that first built Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Likud, the Palestinians say, has just carried out what Labor started.

But Husseini says he is encouraged by the fact that Israel's left-leaning parties, including the Progressive List for Peace, which advocates a Palestinian state on the West Bank, had won votes in the election at the expense of Labor.

''I think it means that some of the Israelis have started to realize that the occupation is something that will harm also their society,'' Husseini says. The strain of acting as an occupying force for 17 years is beginning to fragment Israeli society, he explains.

In the east Jerusalem offices of Al Fajr, an Arab-language Palestinian newspaper, editor Hanna Siniora says a Labor government might prove easier for the Palestinians to live with on a day-to-day basis. Labor might ease up on what the Palestinians say is unreasonably stringent censorship of the Arabic-language press on the West Bank, Mr. Siniora says.

''Labor is more wary of international public opinion than the Likud,'' he says.

''So instead of the iron fist, we will get the velvet glove.''

Siniora and the other Palestinians interviewed all conveyed a feeling of hopelessness, a sense that, in the words of Nusseibeh, ''they are totally powerless'' to bring about change on the West Bank.

Most Palestinians still publicly swear allegiance to Yasser Arafat.

''He gave us an identity as a people,'' said Achran Haniyeh, chairman of the Arab Journalists Association and editor of Ash Shaab, an Arabic-language Palestinian newspaper on the West Bank.

But the Palestinians say they have little hope that the PLO chieftain, driven from Lebanon by the Israelis and straining to hold his fragmented organization together, will be able to do anything soon to alter their status.

Most Palestinians also say they do not believe King Hussein will enter into negotiations with the Israelis anytime soon.

''The King faces too many pressures, from the Syrians, from the Palestinians, and from the other Arab states,'' Erakat concludes.

''He will not negotiate.''

One map and chart: Israel, Arabs, and the West Bank

* Population of Israel proper: 4.1 million; 715,000, or 17 percent, are Arab. All Israeli citizens, Jew and non-Jew, have the right to vote.

* Population of West Bank: 750,000 Palestinians, who do not have the right to vote in Israel. 25,000 Jewish settlers, who do have voting rights.

If Israel were to annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip (population 485,000), the Israeli population would total 4.9 million. 1.5 million, or 30 percent, would be Arab.

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