Palestinians and Israel: iffy Progress

Israeli troops in the West Bank will now be seen as a 'guest army' rather than enemy occupiers

ONE thing stands out in the forthcoming agreement on implementing the next stage of Israeli redeployment: Israel's belligerent occupation of the West Bank is about to end. Diplomacy is creating an extraordinary, cooperative order between Israelis and Palestinians. Measured against their history of confrontation and violence, this development should be seen as progress.

For almost 30 years, Israel's rule over more than 2 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been hostile and contentious. Palestinians have considered the thousands of Israeli troops manning checkpoints and patrolling their cities as enemy occupiers, ruling them without their consent. The tens of thousands of Israeli settlers who live on lands expropriated from Palestinians have been viewed as interlopers who have prevented the natural expansion of Palestinian villages and towns, and whose presence depended on the protection afforded by the Israeli Army.

The international community defined Israel's stay in the territories as belligerent and temporary, and it was judged critically by objective standards of international conduct.

Now, Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Yasser Arafat is about to sign an agreement that will transform Israel's occupation army into what one Israeli commentator calls a ''guest army,'' operating not only by virtue of military conquest but also with Palestinian authorization. This represents a tremendous achievement for Israel's Labor Party, which has always sought Palestinian authorization. Labor has also sought Palestinian partners in a system for the West Bank that would relieve Israel of the burdens of administering the lives of Palestinians while preserving its military control and colonization.

Unlike a true ''guest,'' the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has no intention of leaving the West Bank. This agreement will mark the transformation of Israel's ''belligerent'' rule over Palestinians into an occupation operating with Palestinian consent. And it will demonstrate that, in almost one year of negotiations, Mr. Arafat has been unable to sway Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from his initial two-part offer: (1) a partial, incomplete redeployment that awards the PA, according to Israeli negotiator Yoel Singer, control over a mere 3 percent of the West Bank, with uncertain promises about future expansion; and (2) far greater control over the everyday affairs of Palestinians throughout the territories.

This setup is a variant of the formula first raised by then Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David and derided by critics as ''autonomy for the people but not for the land.''

The PA chairman has failed to win IDF redeployment from Palestinian population centers, as called for in the Oslo agreement. There will be no ''geographic continuity'' between the islands of Palestinian control created by the agreement. Nor has he forced Israel to agree to his fallback position - a specific, unalterable timetable for redeployment beyond the four cities Mr. Rabin is prepared to evacuate before year's end.

Arafat has acquiesced to a framework for expansion of his control heavily conditioned by the PA's performance, particularly in stemming extremist attacks against Israel and its settlements. All that is certain is that he is to assume physical control over the four cities, within their municipal boundaries. Israeli negotiator Uri Savir remarked, ''What was important for us was that the phased transfer of security would be very slow. The Palestinians wanted to see a faster process.''

Rabin, for his part, has not succeeded in completely postponing consideration of redeployment beyond Jenin, Tulkarem, Nablus, and Kalkilyah. He appears to have endorsed a two-year, multistage redeployment, severely conditioned upon Palestinian prevention of anti-Israeli militancy and the abolition of specific clauses in the Palestinian Covenant within two months of Palestinian elections.

This extremely complex arrangement will divide the West Bank into at least five zones:

1. East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel;

2. The 150 Israeli settlements and state lands - under exclusive Israeli control;

3. A Palestinian zone administered on both security and civilian levels by the PA;

4. A Palestinian zone administered on the civilian level by the PA and on the security level by the IDF;

5. A Palestinian zone administered on both the security and civilian levels by the IDF.

The Americans and the Israelis are confident that Arafat, whose popularity remains high and whose administration of Gaza has recently been the subject of increased praise in the American and Israeli press, can sell this package to his people. Arafat can expect international aid to be more forthcoming in the wake of this agreement and the now-obligatory signing ceremony in Washington. Rabin himself is prepared to submit to another difficult handshake on the White House lawn if it will grease the palms of international donors to the PA.

Rabin, far more than Arafat, is the architect of this accord. Like the Gaza agreement, which has left Israel in direct control of 40 percent of the Strip, the West Bank redeployment gives Palestinians nothing that Israelis aren't glad to be rid of.

Rabin has fashioned a timetable where no dates are ''sacred'' and where the Palestinians are under constant pressure to prevent murderous attacks on Israelis. The extension of Palestinian authority can be stopped unilaterally at any number of points, for any number of reasons. Rabin believes that his concessions to Arafat will fall far short of provoking either the Likud opposition or the settlement movement beyond acceptable limits. It is no coincidence that there will be no large-scale IDF retreat from the West Bank before Israeli elections in 1996.

The complexity of this agreement also serves Rabin's ultimate objectives for the West Bank - in his words, ''a Palestinian entity [that is] less than a state, and which works together with Jordan and Israel in a system of economic and other amalgamation and cooperation.''

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