Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government is face-to-face with another prickly political problem in the occupied West Bank. The problem is, briefly, the persistent demand by Jewish settlers to reside in the ancient West Bank Arab city of Hebron. The demand has come primarily from Jews Of Kiryat Arba, the controversial, fenced-off Israeli settlement adjacent to Hebron.
If the Begin government goes along with the settler's demands in practice (it has already approved the idea in principle), the consequences are likely to be far-reaching -- ranging from the possibility of a mounting wave of unrest in the areas under Israel's military rule to a serious diplomatic clash with the United States.
Already there also has been a detrimental effect on the fragile new Israeli relationship with Egypt.
The Jews want to return to houses abandoned in Hebron 51 years ago after a devastating massacre of the city's former Jewish residents. The Arabs are strongly opposed to this. In their latest bid to dramatize opposition to the return of Jewish families, a mass Muslim prayer protest has been called for Feb. 22 at the revered Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.
Sponsored by the Jerusalem-based Supreme Muslim Council, this event apparently is meant as a follow-up to the abortive session of the Palestine National Congress (PNC) originally scheduled for Feb. 19 at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque (the third-holiest shrine in the Islamic world).
This conclave was postponed when the Israeli military authorities ordered West Bank mayors to remain within their respective city limits, thus barrying their participation.
There, too, the main theme was to have been the Israeli government's approval (in principle) of a renewal of Jewish settlement in Hebron.
Reacting to the PNC postponement, civic leaders of the Hebron area convened in the city's municipal building to hear Mayor Muhammad Mulhem of nearby Halhul call for a trade boycott against Kiryat Arba residents and for a ban on Arab employment in the Jewish settlement.
On the diplomatic level, Donald McHenry, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly told Israeli Foreign Ministry officials during a visit here that the US may not act to foil a Jordanian-Moroccan resolution against the reentry of Jews to Hebron, expected to be put forward in the UN Security Council this weekend.
Mr. McHenry is quoted as saying that Israel has been confronting the US with faits accomplis (established facts) in the form of settlements within the occupied areas and that the US may not be able to tolerate this endlessly.
President Sadat of Egypt has also indicated displeasure at the Israeli settlement policy, especially with regard to Hebron. He has suggested that it was an obstacle to the development of fruitful diplomatic relations.
And US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance formally advised Prime Minister Begin in a private letter of American disapproval -- a view promptly rejected by the Israeli leader.
Despite the widening dispute, the practical prospect for Jewish residence in Hebron is for an estimated maximum of 14 families -- equal to the number of available Jewish-owned buildings. One homeowner who now lives in Jerusalem went to Hebron to declare that his family's property would not be made available to the settlers. The reason: their presence could undermine the peace process, he said.
Liberal-minded Israelis, such as columnist Sylvie Keshet of the daily Yediot Aharonot, doubt that the Hebron settlement project is worth the ensuing political furor.
Besides, she rejects the notion that imposing Jewish settlers on exclusively Arab Hebron is really the "appropriate Zionist response" as advocated by a militant Gush Emunim (Faith Bloc) follower.
Meanwhile, the dovish element of Israel's Jewish population is furious at Gush Emunim settlers for allegedly uprooting a rare primeval forest near their Neve Tsuf settlement in the West Bank. This act was termed "vandalism" by the Nature Preservation Society. The purpose apparently was to enlarge the settlement's domain.