Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin must have been well aware that this week's Cabinet resolution about establishment of two Jewish schools in the Arab city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank would anger the United States and provoke Arab opposition.
Thus, the question is whether he regarded this resolution as so important that he was willing to risk the displeasure of the world -- or whether he merely wanted to create an additional object of barter for his forthcoming summit meeting in Washington.
It is possible that he might agree to abandon the establishment of schools in Hebron in return for concessions from the other side.
However, the Jewish schools are only one aspect of the overall problem of Jewish settlement in the West Bank. It is Mr. Begin's view that Israel only exercises the same right of residence for Jews in the West Bank that the Arabs enjoy in Israel proper.
President Carter, on the other hand, has consistently added to all his assurances of friendship for Israel his view that Israel settlements in the West Bank are illegal and hinder Palestinian autonomy negotiations.
Against this background, one can understand how two small schools can trigger a big debate. It must be remembered that until now Jewish settlements in the West Bank were established only outside or on the peripheries of Arab residential areas. In all the occupied territories together, such settlements have a total of only 6,000 Jewish inhabitants, compared to about 1 million Arabs around them.
For example, within the guidelines of current Israeli settlement policy, the Arab city of Hebron has seen the Jewish townlet of Kiryat Arba grow up alongside , but not within it. In the center of Hebron, however, are six empty, partially ruined houses that are still Jewish property.
Most of their owners, old-time residents of Hebron whose families had lived there for generations, were massacred by Arabs in the disturbances of 1929; the survivors today live in Israel. Mr. Begin now wants to repopulate two of these houses in order to give physical expression to Israel's "presence" in Hebron, the "city of the Jewish patriarchs."
It is precisely this that the Arabs oppose. They are against any Jewish settlement in the West Bank, but have put up with side-by-side living. And although the government in Jerusalem has explicitly declared that repopulating Jewish houses would not displace a single Arab from his property, they fear a "creeping dispossession."
Just as the public debate on this question was at its height and American criticism was growing in volume, the Israeli government passed a resolution, albeit a toothless one: "The Israeli right of residence in the entire area of the land of Israel is inalienable."
The practical implementation of this resolution, however, was deferred from one meeting to another, amid major dissent even within the Cabinet. It was only on March 23 that a compromise was passed: no settlement, but two schools in existing Jewish houses in Hebron. Although, on top of the absence of a time limit in the resolution, the architect in charge said it would take two to three years to build the two objects, the resolution generated heavy resistance.
Throughout the West Bank, a strike, with varying degrees of compliance, was called for March 25; and the city council of Hebron decided to resign in a body as soon as the schools were set up.
In the Cabinet itself, the resolution just barely passed by a vote of 8 to 6, with 3 abstentions. A key personality, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, voted with the opponents.Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin announced he would make use of his right under the coalition agreement to appeal against the resolution to the parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. There the resolution may yet founder because its supporters are in a minority in the committee.
This situation cannot have escaped the attention of as skilled a parliamentarian as Mr. Begin. Many presume therefore that he has anticipated this and intends to acquiesce in the rejection of the Cabinet resolution by the parliamentary committee.
He then will be able to face the extremist Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful) and claim that he has done everything, including challenging the world , but was overruled by a duly constituted authority.
The press, meanwhile -- with the notable exception of the National Religious Party's Hatzofeh -- has turned against Mr. Begin. Typical of most was the usually progovernment daily, Maariv, which said:
"The government has managed, with a tiny majority, to pass the worst of all resolutions at the most unsuitable of all times. . . . The government must consider, among other things, the reaction of the world, the effect on negotiations with Egypt, and the chances to persuade additional Arab elements to join the talks.
"Had the government made every effort to suffer a major setback, it could not have done anything better than to pass this resolution."