Begin's dilemma: breaking deadlock on autonomy could cost him his job

Prime Minister Menachem Begin is caught between a desire to help break the deadlock with Egypt and the United States over Palestinian autonomy -- and a need to prevent defections from the right wing of his political coalition at home.

Despite his outward disinterest in public opinion polls that show sagging personal popularity and in local news media speculation about a national election within six months, Mr. Begin has been veering toward the hawkish element in the Israeli Cabinet.

He spearheaded the controversial Cabinet decision to authorize two Jewish schools and a dormitory in the West Bank city of Hebron.

At the same time, the statesman in Mr. Begin seems to be cautioning against risking a breakdown of the peacemaking process that could undo the greatest single achievement of his three-year term as prime minister.

These were the underlying considerations with which the Israeli leader went to special Cabinet session April 9 to decide on the extent to which he could make concessions, if any, during his talks with President Carter in Washington next week.

The Cabinet instructed him to adhere strictly to the terms of the Camp David agreements during the Washington discussions. The implication is that Mr. Begin has been told there is little room for compromise in the negotiations as far as his colleagues are concerned.

Thus, the main issues blocking agreement on a Palestinian self-governing authority appear to be beyond compromise from the government's standpoint.

mr. Begin will not be able to surrender Israel's claim to being the ultimate authority from which a proposed Palestinian autonomy would derive its administrative powers. To relent on this point would be tantamount to forfeiting his Likud Party's belief that Israel is the rightful sovereign over the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip -- even if this is not explicitly declared for the time being.

Therefore, Mr. Begin will continue to argue that the interim Palestinian administrative council must be responsible to the Israeli military government of the occupied areas.

Another issue over which Mr. Begin cannot make concessions is letting the Palestinians know the precise West Bank and Gaza Strip locations where Israeli armed forces are to be stationed. This is defined here as a matter of security that must be left to Israel's discretion and not to the Palestinians.

The Prime Minister also cannot relinquish control over the West Bank's water resources -- not merely because these are essential to continuing jewish settlement projects, but due to the region's geographical role as the natural watershed for the agriculturally-vital coastal plain of Israel.

If Mr. Begin were to give in on these points, he would be alienating right-wingers who now have the new Renaissance Party as an alternative to his Likud coalition.

On the other hand, if he stonewalls in Washington and causes a change of heart in Egypt's President Sadat -- his immediate predecessor at the consecutive Washington summit talks -- Mr. Begin may precipitate the resignation of his Cabinet's dovish contingent: the democrats, the liberals, or Defense Minister Ezer Weizman himself.

This, in turn, could lead to the collapse of the coalition and to a nationwide election a year ahead of schedule.

The Arab Liberation Front's shocking raid on Kibbutz Misgavam and the consequent slaying of a two-year-old boy along with two Israeli adults (a soldier and a civilian kibbutz secretary) may bolster Mr. Begin's refusal at the summit to let autonomy be a prelude to Palestinian statehood.

He will argue that the Palestine Liberation Organization contains irredentist factions that would pose a threat to israel's heartland were it to become the eventual ruler of the adjacent West Bank and Gaza Strip.

His stand will be reflected in the nature of Israel's response to the Misgavam attack. Continued restraint might indicate that much more readiness to compromise, while a powerful retaliation would signal the contrary.

Despite these built-in obstacles, there is a slim chance of headway being made in the Washington discussions.

The Israeli government, for example, has not rejected President Sadat's suggestion that autonomy be introduced in the Gaza Strip first and that it be a model for the West Bank. This idea could be jointly defined as being worthy of further consideration.

And the Jerusalem question, although seemingly insoluble, contains seeds of agreement based on mutual recognition of the religious shrines within the city.

There is no confirmation in informed Israeli quarters of a notion that Mr. Begin may consent to a freeze on additional Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip if the US can assure Jordan's imminent entry into the autonomy negotiations.

But such a moratorium on further settlements could be implemented without public declarations, if only to mollify Egyptian resentment and to prevent further difficulties for Mr. Sadat in his dealings with the various Arab states.

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