Israel's Prime Minister Loses Political Ground

ISRAEL'S Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin enters sensitive talks on extending Palestinian self-rule while his ruling Labor Party is in disarray, his electoral support waning, and with traditional sympathizers joining a growing band of critics.

Caught in the cross-fire between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, Mr. Rabin is increasingly defensive as he tries to defuse the rapidly polarizing situation.

As his popularity has reached an all-time low, usually sympathetic Israeli commentators are criticizing Rabin for his management, indecisive leadership, and indifference to poverty.

``Rabin is losing credibility as a leader, a manager, and a man who keeps his promises,'' wrote Hirsh Goodman, editor of the Jerusalem Report.

Haim Assa, a former senior adviser to Rabin, sharply criticized his former boss in an interview in the Jerusalem newspaper Kol Hair last week for his inaction over the growing gulf between the rich and poor in Israel.

He warned that poverty and deprivation among Israelis was feeding Jewish fundamentalism and ultraorthodox groups.

But Rabin's most immediate political problem is renewed attention on 120,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank.

The decision last week to halt construction at a new site near the settlement of Efrat near Bethlehem - then authorize building at a location farther from the Palestinian village of Al-Khader - has compounded Rabin's problems.

The government has said it will not allow the building of new settlements or take land for new construction, but it has stopped short of outlawing the expansion of existing settlements.

At a public meeting of Palestinians in Jericho on Monday, senior leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA) - the body set up to administer self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho - called for a halt to talks with the Israelis until the settlement issue is clarified.

``What is left for us to talk about with the Israeli government when they are using the same methods of land usurpation?'' asks PA Culture and Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Palestinian civil rights groups have identified some 20 sites where they say Israelis plan to take land or expand settlements.

``It is meaningless to maintain the negotiations with Israel while it violates the tenets of the peace agreement,'' Hannan Ashrawi, a former Palestinian spokeswoman and human rights monitor, said at the Jericho meeting.

Last week, Time magazine published an internal Labor Party poll that showed if elections were held now opposition Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu would defeat Rabin by a 10 percent margin, and Likud would defeat Labor by 47 parliamentary seats to 27. Elections are scheduled for November 1996.

Rabin immediately denied that such a poll existed and - in a rare move - called in senior Israeli correspondents to refute the poll.

But veteran Israeli pollster Mina Tzemah, one of the country's largest pollsters, gives Likud 42 seats to Labor's 36.

Speaking in Nazareth on the day the Time poll caused the flurry, Rabin conceded that support for Labor was on the decline and that the problem lay inside the Labor Party.

``I take responsibility for everything ... for the success of the Labor Party ... and for the faults of the day.''

Tensions within the Rabin government over the Jewish settlements in the West Bank - and the redeployment of Israeli troops there ahead of the yet-to-be scheduled Palestinian elections - erupted into the open earlier this week with ministers continuing their Cabinet squabbles in public.

Talks between Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Monday failed to deliver a breakthrough on either of these key issues, but both leaders put a positive spin on their talks and announced progress on some secondary issues including the release of prisoners, safe passages, and passports.

``There is a growing danger that the government's preoccupation with its domestic problems could lead to the neglect of the peace process ...,'' a Western diplomat says.

Susan Hattis Rolef, a noted Israeli political scientist and author, said that Rabin was to blame for the Labor Party's problems.

Ms. Rolef cited Rabin's ``excessive concern with short-term public opinion,'' his poor management, and his lack of interest in running the party as the reasons for Labor's flagging popularity.

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