Most Israelis and Palestinians Back Historic Mideast Accord

But people on both sides remain cautious about plan and difficult path ahead

AS Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat brace themselves for the rocky path still ahead they have received some encouraging news from home. Their peoples are with them.

Two public opinion polls released here yesterday showed that 62 percent of Israeli Jews support the ``Gaza-Jericho first'' plan that the two leaders traveled to the White House to witness the signing of yesterday, while 65 percent of Palestinians in the occupied territories give it their backing.

But on both sides, the popular support is cautious and qualified, showing a ``general wish to hesitate,'' in the words of Prof. Eliahu Katz, who conducted the Israeli poll for the Guttman Institute at Hebrew University.

``Rabin carries the ambivalence of the street, saying he doesn't like them [the PLO], but we have to deal with them,'' says Avishai Margalit, a philosophy professor at Hebrew University. ``That's what makes him effective.''

Among Palestinians, reservations spring from disappointment at the limitations of the accord.

``My sense is that there is support for the agreement from the majority,'' says Ghassan Khatib, a member of the Palestinian negotiating team at the Middle East peace talks, ``not necessarily because they feel it is the right agreement, but because they see it as a step in the right direction.''

The Guttman Institute's poll found predictably overwhelming support for the deal - 95 percent - among Labor and left-wing Israeli voters, but also uncovered a surprisingly high 40 percent of right-wing Likud voters who approve of it.

``This reflects Rabin's strength among security hawks in the Likud,'' Professor Katz says, and illustrates how opposition to the peace deal is concentrated in the extreme right-wing and religious sectors.

``Apart from the hard-core messianic types, the ordinary right-wingers are ambivalent,'' Professor Margalit adds. ``At the moment, there is no real opposition.''

Katz attributes the support for Rabin's move both to what he calls ``a creeping doveishness'' among the Israeli public, and the effects of a bold leadership initiative. ``The public led the government in doveishness over the past 10 years, but the government's initiative has accelerated that dramatically in a matter of days,'' Katz says.

He points to the 40 percent of Israelis who now say they are prepared to countenance a Palestinian state - up from 25 percent only a year ago - and the astonishing 51 percent who say they trust the PLO to keep its word over the agreement.

At the same time, however, 66 percent of respondents said that the government should hold a referendum (as the Likud is demanding) before any peace plan is finalized, and 60 percent conceded that they were not clear about the current plan's implications.

Nearly two-thirds said they worried that the PLO will be unable to control anti-Israeli terrorism by rival Palestinian groups opposed to the peace accord - concerns fueled further by the deaths of four Israelis in separate incidents on Sunday.

Such uncertainties bother even left-wing peace activists, whose initial plans for a joyful celebration of the peace treaty's signature have been toned down over the past week.

``If we celebrate while others are mourning, it would create too much tension,'' Margalit says. ``Keeping it low-key is the way to capture the center, to show that we are sober about this, that we are aware of the difficulties.''

Moshe Zeev Feldman, a Knesset (parliament) member from the ultra-orthodox Agudat Yisrael Party, voices the sort of reservations felt far beyond his religious circle.

``When you give away something that belongs to you it is like an operation,'' he argues. ``Perhaps for the sanctity of life, we must cut off organs from the Land of Israel, but there is no joy, there is sadness. I have never seen a man dancing on his way to an operation.''

Palestinians in the occupied territories are also ambivalent, although for different reasons.

A poll taken by the East Jerusalem-based Center for Palestine Research and Studies found that although nearly two-thirds of Palestinians back the accord, only 45 percent felt that it would lead to a Palestinian state and achieve Palestinian rights.

``People are very cautious and very worried because they do not know what the agreement will give them practically, what it will change,'' Dr. Khatib says.

With the PLO leadership under unprecedented criticism in recent months, there are doubts about how Mr. Arafat and his allies will respond to demands for more democracy in the PLO.

``Will the leadership be successful in managing a civil society?'' Khatib asks. ``Will the police be oppressive? These are people's concerns.''

But as details of the accord become clear, and ``when practical results come,'' popular support for Arafat's leap into the dark will solidify, Khatib predicts.

``When prisoners are released, when the PLO moves to the territories, when people can raise the [Palestinian] flag, when they stop seeing the Israeli Army, and most importantly, if we succeed in raising living standards, then support will increase,'' he says.

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