A new test of wills is under way between West Bank political and business leaders and the Israeli government. At its center is a decision by the Israeli government to take over the concession of a Palestinian-owned electric company in east Jerusalem in exactly one year, against the wishes of its board of directors.
West Bank figures already are labeling the dispute "another Shakaa" affair. This is a reference to the arrest and threatened deportation by the Israeli military authorities of the leading West Bank mayor, Bassem Shakaa of Nablus, several weeks ago.
Mayor Shakaa was released and resumed office after his case aroused international protest and all the West Bank and Gaza Strip mayors had resigned in his support.
The Jerusalem Electric Company's board, which includes West Bank mayors and business and professional leaders, has said it will appeal the decision to Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, to UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, and possibly to the Israeli Supreme Court or to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Some mayors have spoken again of submitting resignations.
In one of the strange twists common to this mixed city, the Jerusalem Electric Company provides electricity to nearly all of the Jewish settlements and Jerusalem suburbs that have been built on territory owned by Jordan until 1967, about 15,000 families, according to company sources. It also supplies electricity to about 350,000 Arab customers in all of the major Arab towns and most of the villages in the area.
A concession originally was awarded under Turkish rule and renewed under both the British and the Jordanians. It contains a clause, dating from the British Mandate, which gave the then governing authority the right, at five-year intervals, to buy out the company. Palestinian sources say it is unclear whether the Israeli government can exercise this right, since international law does not recognize its unilateral annexation of east Jerusalem.
Informed Israelis say the Israeli government has been anxious for some time to secure electricity supplies to its settlements on the West Bank. Last summer , the government attempted to lease the part of the concession serving the settlements from the electric company.
The company received initial approval from Jordan without opposition from the dominant Al-Fatah wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), both of which are normally consulted by West Bankers in any politically touchy situation.
But workers at the company, fearing lay- offs, and unofficially supported by the communist organization on the West Bank, struck against the deal. And several strongly nationalist mayors, including Mr. Shakaa, opposed the lease because they feared the Israelis would use the concession as a basis to claim rights inside any future Palestinian entity.
As a result of the strike, Jordan and the PLO reversed their conditions and opposed the lease. "We didn't sell them part of the concession, so now they want all of it," says Anwar Nusseibeh, chairman of the board of the electric company and a former Jordanian defense minister.
In the wake of the strike, the electric company took on new symbolic status as a Palestinian national institution, which may also have caused it to lose favor with the Israelis, according to some Palestinians.
Israeli analysts are questioning why the government announced the takeover plans just before the Egypt-Israel summit meeting at Aswan, Egypt, where the issues of Palestinian automony and the future status of Jerusalem will be on the agenda.
Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek is "irate" at the decision, according to Israeli press reports, because he fears the move will undermine Jewish-Arab relations and cooperation in the Israeli capital.
A spokesman for the Israeli Energy Ministry claims that the government decision, which would service Arab customers from the Israeli Electric Corporation, was based "solely on technological and economic grounds."