Israel's Reversal Averts a Crisis

In a bizarre twist of domestic politics, Israel's Rabin pulls back from more land confiscations

THE Israeli-Arab peace process received a boost from an unexpected quarter on May 22 when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin abruptly canceled plans to confiscate about 130 acres of land in Arab East Jerusalem.

Mr. Rabin was responding to a parliamentary maneuver by the right-wing Likud opposition. Likud supports the confiscations in principle. But the party had threatened to support a parliamentary no-confidence motion tabled by left-wing Israeli-Arab parties to topple the Rabin government and end the peace process.

The Likud maneuver rescued Israel from a shrill chorus of international condemnation over the land confiscations, which threatened to stalemate Israel's peace process with Arab neighbors.

Last week, the United States blocked a United Nations Security Council motion opposing the land seizures, exercising its veto power in the Council for the first time in five years.

Radical Palestinian groups had pledged to step up violence in Jerusalem, the city claimed both by Israelis and Palestinians.

In Jordan, meanwhile, a parliamentary vote last week ordering a freeze on the peace treaty with Israel in the wake of the land takings had threatened to trigger a constitutional crisis in the monarchy of King Hussein, who is personally committed to the pact.

While Rabin had repeatedly declared his intention to proceed with the expropriations despite the wave of rebuke, top Israeli government officials privately said May 23 that they were pleased to have found a graceful exit from the brouhaha.

And a number of Rabin's Cabinet members expressed public relief. ''Strategically we thought the [expropriation] step wasn't wise -- or in the best interest of Jerusalem,'' said Police Minister Moshe Shahal, a member of Rabin's Labor Party.

Following the Israeli about-face, the Arab League quickly canceled a planned weekend meeting to discuss the land seizures -- a meeting that could have resulted in a freeze of the Israeli-Arab moves toward diplomatic normalization.

Jordanian, Egyptian, and Palestinian officials all welcomed the Israeli step. ''The decision to suspend the confiscation is a positive decision that goes in the right direction,'' Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul Karim al-Kabariti told Reuters in Amman.

Although it was clear that Israel's policy reversal will help bolster the credibility of the troubled peace process in Palestinian eyes, Jordan may have been the biggest Arab winner.

King Hussein has been facing a potentially dangerous stand-off with his parliament, which has taken a strong stance against the continued implementation of Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, signed last autumn.

''This has saved Hussein some very serious embarrassment. It could have even been the beginning of a serious loss of authority by the king,'' remarked one official Israeli source. Jordan has long seen itself as an Arab patron of East Jerusalem, which it controlled prior to Israel's occupation of the eastern sector of the city in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

While the about-face rescued Rabin from a painful confrontation with Arab peace partners, it was a political blow to the prime minister in the domestic political arena, where the aging statesman emerged appearing weak and indecisive.

Still, the right-wing Likud appeared to have emerged from the parliamentary fray appearing even more tarnished before Israeli voters.

Israeli analysts described the Likud attempt to forge an alliance with left-wing Arab parties solely to bring down the government as a ''smelly maneuver.''

''A stupid opposition saved you from a situation that you shouldn't have gotten into in the first place,'' Israeli political commentator Yosef Lapid told Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in a talk-show forum on Israel Television May 22.

The parliamentary incident also seemed to highlight the growing domestic political weight of Israeli Arab parties, which want the government to adopt a more dovish position vis-a-vis the Israeli-Arab peace process. Those parties, which control five votes in the 120-member Israeli Knesset, give Rabin's center-left coalition a parliamentary majority.

''Yesterday was the first time that the Arab parties obtained a serious concession from Rabin,'' said Israel Radio political commentator Hanan Kristal, referring to the Israeli-Arab demand to cancel the land seizures.

Representatives of the Palestinian leadership in the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, said that the Israeli move would help to avert potential unrest in Jerusalem over the land takings, as Israeli and Palestinian negotiators seek to conclude an agreement on a planned Israeli military withdrawal from much of the Israeli-occupied West Bank by the revised July 1 deadline.

But the Palestinian leaders warned that disturbances could still erupt if Israel goes ahead with previously announced plans to build thousands of Jewish housing units on hundreds of acres of land that were previously expropriated in East Jerusalem, but where ground has not yet been broken.

''If one bulldozer begins digging on land that was already expropriated, it will destroy all of the positive things which were achieved today,'' warned Faisal Husseini, who serves unofficially as the Palestinian minister in charge of the Jerusalem portfolio, on May 22.

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